LOWELL, Mass. — A devastating fire at an apartment building in Lowell early Thursday left 50 homeless, seven dead — including three children — and two young orphans, relatives and authorities said.
“Obviously a horrible day in the city of Lowell,” State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said. “I cannot recall in recent times responding to a fire with this many fatalities. This was a fast-moving fire that overtook that building. It will be some time before the victims can be removed from the building.”
Coan and Lowell Fire Chief Edward Pitta said investigators made the grim discovery of seven bodies in two separate third-floor apartments. The bodies were burned so badly that ages and gender could not be determined.
A devastated Thearan Sak, 20, who identified himself as the brother of one of the adults who died, told reporters his brother, his brother’s longtime girlfriend and their 7-year-old daughter as well as their 12-year-old and 9-year-old sons all perished. Sak said two other sons survived the blaze — only to suffer the agonizing loss of their entire family.
Sak said he raced to the building after he got an early morning phone call from his mother saying his brother’s house was on fire.
“I went to the scene hoping that everybody made it out,” he said. “But when I pulled up on the Cambodian store lot, I only saw two of my nephews. My brother had five kids and that was pretty much it. I only saw two out of seven.”
The Nashua Fire Department sent a ladder truck to help battle the fire.
Responding on a third alarm, the truck was dispatched out of the Lake Street Station to the fire scene at around 5 a.m., said Nashua Deputy Fire Chief Karl Gerhard.
Thursday afternoon, the search continued for more remains, Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan said.
Coan said he has asked Ryan to join him in a thorough review of the dwelling’s code compliance history. The building had a ground-floor liquor store and nine residential units, with one vacant, housing 48-50 people, according to authorities.
State police also are involved in what promises to be an extensive investigation of the fire, the deadliest in the Bay State in 20 years.
Coan said authorities are investigating reports by some witnesses that they did not hear smoke alarms go off when the 4 a.m. three-alarm conflagration erupted. Lowell Deputy Fire Chief Patrick McCabe said there are fire escapes on the building, and previous responses to the address for minor issues have shown there to be a working fire alarm system.
“Whether it was working now, we don’t know,” he said.
“We were there a year and four months ago and anything dealing with fire safety checked out, including smoke alarms and CO2, and there were no problems.” said Eric Sagle, director of Development Services for the city.
Lowell Mayor Rodney M. Elliott called it “a tragic day for the city of Lowell. The entire city mourns for the families who list victims in the fire.”
Elliott said code inspectors have already pulled the building’s records and are cooperating fully.
The terrifying fire forced people to leap from the three-story wood-frame structure at 81-85 Branch St., sent nine people to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries and left one firefighter suffered a leg injury, authorities said.
“Upon arrival (firefighters) had heavy fire showing from the building. They picked five people out of the windows with the aerial ladder,” McCabe said.
The blaze was spotted by a police officer on patrol who called it in.
McCabe said the heaviest concentration of fire was in the second- and third-floor apartments; however, its origin is still unknown. The roof of the building burned off and collapsed.
Chendara Chun, 18, who lives in a neighboring building, said he heard what sounded like fireworks, but it was a child’s screams of terror that got him on his feet out of a sound sleep to wake his sister Sarin Chun, 31.
“A girl was screaming, ‘Help me, help me!’ And she was dropped from the window,” the teen said.
His sister said she could make out in the dark someone holding the little girl out the window at arm’s length.
“Then they let her go. It gives me goose bumps,” she said. “I have a daughter and I can’t even imagine.”
The property, built in 1980, is owned by Sanjay Patel, of DK Ram LLC, according to city property records.
The owners released a statement through their attorney saying their “thoughts and prayers, like all citizens of Massachusetts, are with the victims and their families.”
“Sanjay Patel recognizes there is a pressing public interest regarding the devastating fire on Branch Street in Lowell,” Patel’s lawyer Timothy Perry said. “Out of respect for the victims of the fire and their families as well as in recognition of the ongoing investigation regarding the fire, however, Mr. Patel shall not be making any public statement at this time. Mr Patel is fully cooperating with all authorities investigating the fire. In the meantime, his thoughts and prayers, like all citizens of Massachusetts, are with the victims and their families.”
At the time of the blaze, frightened father Rotha Proeung said, his 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter were in the building with their mother and her boyfriend and were awakened by the smoke.
He said the boyfriend tried to get them out the door, but the intense fire drove them back so he got them to the window, where they were all rescued by firefighters.
“Very grateful,” said Proeung, whose children were treated for smoke inhalation. “They were very frightened.”
Survivors are being sheltered at the city’s senior center.
“These families are going to need clothing, basic necessities in life ... They have nothing,” the city’s mayor said. “They lost everything in this fire.”
Union Leader Correspondent Hunter McGee contributed to this report.