EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 31, 2013

Homeless, but not helpless

Fire drives 16 people from three families out of Bruce Street house

By Yadira Betances
ybetances@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — Because she is blind, Jessica Santiago moved into the first-floor apartment at 196 Bruce St. last December so she could get in and out without having to climb a lot of stairs.

Early yesterday morning, Santiago, 27, and her family got out of the same building unharmed, but lost most of their possessions in a three-alarm fire.

“My biggest concern was getting my children out safely. I didn’t care about anything else,” said Santiago. Her children are Janelis Barahona, 9, Isiah Santiago, 7 and Anayalis Santiago, 4.

Santiago lost her eyesight at age 18. Her mother Migdalia Almestica and brother Andy Cotto also live with her and the children.

Santiago and her family were among 16 people from three left homeless in the blaze at the three-story building.

Lawrence Fire Chief Jack Bergeron said the call came at 2:05 a.m. and it went to three alarms shortly after.

“When the first truck arrived, there was heavy flames coming out of the front windows on the third floor,” Bergeron said.

The blaze may have been caused by an overloaded power strip.

“It appears that the third-floor occupant had a power strip with a small refrigerator, air conditioner and other small appliances and it overloaded,” Bergeron said.

“It was incidental, which is what happens when a room flashes over,” Bergeron said.

Bruce Street is off Jackson Street and bordered by Avon, Trinity and Park streets in the Arlington neighborhood. Homes are close together and firefighters asked residents from adjacent buildings to evacuate as a precaution.

Firefighters did not have any problems with the water pressure as they have had at several recent fires, including one on Park Street.

Bergeron said firefighters used a temporary water main at Park and Bruce streets, which will soon become permanent.

Firefighters from Methuen, Andover, and Lowell helped Lawrence at the scene, while Dracut, North Andover and Salem, N.H. manned stations.

Almestica said she had returned from a friend’s house a few hours before the fire and was still awake when the fire broke out.

“I looked out the window and saw a woman running and yelling, ‘fire’ ‘fire,’ “ she said. Without hesitation, she said she took her grandchildren shirtless and without shoes out of the building. This is not the first time Almestica’s family had been in a fire. In 1989, they were victims of a fire on Water Street in which they lost all of their furniture.

Early this morning Almestica used $15 she won on a Lottery scratch ticket to purchase snacks for her family.

The American Red Cross was at the scene and provided Sponge Bob and penguin blankets and Mickey Mouse dolls for the children, snack and beverages. Victims also received gift certificates for food, clothing and a portable crib, said Ashley Studley, communications manager for the American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts.

The Red Cross put up 16 people from three families on each floor of the house in a local hotel temporarily, she said.

“I’m depressed,” said Sylvia Gonzalez, who lived on the second floor apartment with her brother, Felipe Lasanta and children, Miguel Vargas, 22, Jose Vargas, 21, Francisco Martinez, 18, Gloria Martinez, 14 and 2-year-old grandson Jaymean Rosado.

Gonzalez was watching television when she smelled smoke. She walked through her apartment looking for the source and it wasn’t until she got to the living room and looked up that she saw the flames shooting up.

“I thought I was dreaming. I thought, ‘It must be a nightmare. This can’t be happening,” said Gonzalez who has lived at that address for four years.

She grabbed her grandson, dressed him and joined her neighbors outside as they watched their home and possessions go up in flames.

Gonzalez’ furniture, clothing and televisions were all water logged.

“Material things don’t mean anything, at least we did not any tragedies,” she said.

In addition to help from the Red Cross, the victims received store gift cards from Heal Lawrence, led by Mt. Vernon Neighborhood Association president Wayne Hayes and Lawrence Firefighter Juan “Manny” Gonzalez. The group has helped several fire victims over the past year.