Sifting through the ashes
MANCHESTER - Firefighters rescued a mother and her infant and five others trapped on the upper floors of their East Side condominium complex during a raging, four-alarm blaze that left an estimated 40 people homeless and three firefighters with minor injuries early Thursday.
Firefighters first on scene quickly ran ground ladders up against the 90-92 Eastern Ave. building and led residents from second- and third-floor balconies and windows to safety, including a woman whom a 911 dispatcher kept on the line as she watched flames 10 feet from her window and tenants on the ground yelled at her to jump or shimmy down the balcony.
'It was the longest three minutes of my life,' Lesli Rotondo, 26, said outside the blackened ruins of her Dearhaven Preserve home where she returned late morning to salvage whatever belongings she could.
Like many of her neighbors, Rotondo said she is grateful that 'we are actually alive' after the 1 a.m. blaze that brought in all available on- and off-duty firefighters.
'It was a heroic effort,' Fire Chief James Burkush said of the nearly 100 firefighters who headed in the burning building to evacuate residents, manned ground ladders or battled flames that shot more than 50 feet above the roof. They had the blaze under control at 4:32 a.m.
'I'm proud to be the chief of their department, I'll tell ya. They are an amazing group of individuals,' Burkush said.
► Photos from the fire's aftermath
► Fire chief: 4-alarm blaze likely caused by cigarette
► Woman recounts dramatic story of rescue from burning building
'Considering the fact that we are operating with reduced staffing and equipment, firefighters still managed to rescue all the occupants with minimal injuries and to save considerable property,' Burkush said, referring to cuts in staffing and equipment imposed by city budget cuts.
Fire Lt. Andy Parent and Firefighter Robert Plantier were treated for burns and Firefighter Dan Franggos suffered a back injury, Burkush said. The mother and infant were treated for smoke inhalation, he said. None needed to be hospitalized, he said.
Fire investigator Peter Lennon said the fire apparently started on the front balcony of Unit 103 at 92 Eastern Ave. from careless disposal of a cigarette. It is considered accidental, he said.
All but one of the 24 units of the wood-framed building with vinyl siding were occupied, he said. The building is unlivable, but salvageable, Lennon said. Damage is estimated at about $500,000, fire officials said.
Second-floor resident Nate Burdick just finished packing for a trip to the Bahamas when he opened the door to the stairwell and the alarm sounded.
Not seeing anything, he headed outside to find flames racing up the center balconies along the building's front.
'They were raging, raging in flames,' he said.
Burdick ran back upstairs to alert his roommate, Kelley Rowe, and get his dog.
'We got outside and it was wild. It was like what you see in a movie. People were screaming, there was confusion, panic. People were trapped on a balcony in the back,' Burdick said.
His roommate, who fled without any shoes, tried to climb up to the third floor balcony to help some people stranded there but made it only to the second floor. By then, Burdick said, fire trucks started rolling in and tenants directed fire crews to where people were trapped.
'It was very strange and overwhelming,' Burdick said.
District Fire Chief Michael Gamache said some residents were hanging from windows - gasping for fresh air from the heavy smoke - when firefighters arrived.
'When I opened my bedroom window, I thought my house was on fire,' said Amy Campbell, who lives next door at 106 Eastern Ave. and was awakened by the light from the fire. Tenants in her building, fearing the fire would spread from embers landing on their roof, gathered their pets and fled outside.
'I looked up and there was a woman trapped on the third floor of the building. We were all screaming at her to 'Jump!',' Campbell said.
Chief Burkush said all available firefighters were called in to assist the 44 on-duty personnel. City budget cuts imposed this fiscal year resulted in six fewer firefighters per shift than the 50 who typically manned stations, Burkush said. This has required that four pieces of fire-fighting equipment remain out of service because they cannot be operated safely with limited staffing, Burkush said.
'In this case, we were only able to roll three of the five ladders (trucks) and then we were only able to respond with eight of the 10 pumpers and a rescue. We idled four pieces of equipment,' Burkush said.
Ladder trucks were called in from Central Station and the West Side, while the one at Mammoth Road station was idle, Burkush said.
'In this case, we had a successful outcome. In other times, we don't know what the next incident might bring. If we were to have multiple incidents at the same time, we would not have the resources to respond,' the chief said.
Every available piece of fire fighting equipment was at the scene within 7 minutes of the call coming in, Gamache said.
Connie Bessette of 106 Eastern Ave. said she and other tenants stood helpless as they watched Rotondo trapped in her third-floor apartment.
'She was screaming. We went over to get a mattress or something. We said this is unbelievable it would take fire people this long to get here,' Bessette said, adding 'it felt like 10 minutes' before the first crews arrived.
But fire officials displayed computerized call records that show the first alarm was struck at 12:57 a.m. and the first crew - Engine 10 from Mammoth Road - arrived on scene at 1:02 a.m.
Since the fire started on the outside of the building, it didn't trigger the automatic alarms until after the fire was well under way, Burkush said. He said the first reports came in as 911 calls.
Melanie Payeur, who has owned a second-floor condominium in the middle of the building for the past five years, said a fire alarm woke her about 1 a.m. She put on some socks, grabbed a coat, wallet and keys and headed out the door. She looked back to see flames outside her sliding glass door.
'It was already roaring,' she said of the fire. 'I was lucky, very, very lucky.' Once outside, she and a neighbor saw other residents hanging out a window on the third floor, trapped by the blaze. The neighbor called 911.
Her condominium was heavily damaged but, she said, 'I'm thankful I have my life.'
She had high praise for the volunteers of the Greater Manchester Chapter of the American Red Cross who 'got up in the middle of the night to help us. The Red Cross did a fantastic job. They were there with water and food. I can't say enough good things about them.'
The American Red Cross New Hampshire region is helping about 40 people displaced by the blaze, chief communications officer Lisa Michaud said. The Red Cross is providing them with debit cards to buy food, medicine, clothings and putting some residents up in local hotels, she said.