Courtesy of Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise
Fitchburg--On Saturday night, a kitchen fire in a first floor apartment quickly spread to the rest of the building at 66 Highland Ave., leaving 25 people homeless. There are six apartments in the three-story building, and everyone escaped without injury.
The five-alarm fire started at 9:34 p.m. when a resident who was frying egg-rolls left the frying pan unattended in the kitchen. The grease in the pan ignited, and upon returning to the kitchen, the resident saw the flames spreading up the wall, said Fitchburg Deputy Fire Chief James J. Belliveau.
The apartment where the blaze started is leased to Mitkhomsinh and Sokha Khem Saysourivong, who live there with their four children.
"They were so upset, and saying, 'I'm so sorry,'" said building owner Jean Palmer about the Saysourivongs. "But I told them, 'Accidents happen.'"
Palmer said that when the fire got out of control, the Saysourivongs knocked on the doors to alert neighbors of the danger.
One of those neighbors was Sune Vilavong, who was asleep when the fire started.
"I woke up when I heard big knocks at the door," said Sune Vilavong. He lives on the second floor with his wife, He Vilavong, and their two children.
Neighbor Jenny Batallas saw the fire from her driveway and called 9-11 to report the flames. She said the fire moved from the first floor to the second and third floor in "a matter of seconds."
The flames climbed quickly upwards due in part to the structure of the building, said Belliveau.
"These old houses were constructed with balloon frame construction," he said. "The walls act just like a flue in a chimney, and the fire travels everywhere."
William Welch, who lived on the third floor of 66 Highland Ave. was "relaxing and watching TV" with his girlfriend Rebecca Foster when the smoke alarm sounded. Their one-year-old daughter, Zaryanna, was asleep in another room.
"I went down to investigate, and got the shock of my life because I didn't expect it to be a real fire," said Welch. "Flames were shooting up at least 40 feet in the air," he said.
Welch ran back upstairs and alerted Foster, who grabbed their sleeping baby, and ran downstairs and exited through the front door. Welch said he stayed a few minutes trying in vain to find the keys to his car, and also pounded on his neighbor's door before remembering they were away for the weekend.
Foster said that Zaryanna's crib was positioned right near the back of the building, where the heaviest flames were.
"A few minutes later, and it would have been too late," she said.
The upper part of the building was charred and blackened in the back.
"I'm just praying we can salvage most of our stuff," Welch said. Welch said he had been "getting quotes" on renter's insurance, but hadn't signed up yet.
"I'd like to put the message out there," he said. "Everyone should have insurance." He added, "And a fire extinguisher." Welch and Foster moved into the Victorian Queen Anne-style building about a month ago, from another apartment on Highland Ave.
Palmer said "her heart dropped" when she heard about the building. "That one is my favorite," she said about the building. "It is on the list of historic houses of Massachusetts."
Palmer had just installed a new roof on the building, which was completed earlier that day.
The state Fire Marshal was called to the scene, and it was quickly established that the cause of the fire was accidental. The fire caused an unknown amount of structural damage to the building and melted the siding of a building on Green St. behind the Highland Ave. building.
The American Red Cross provided assistance to three of the families.
Fire Departments from Leominster, Westminster, Ashburnham, Townsend, Shirley responded to the blaze, along with 70 Fitchburg firefighters and 22 off-duty Fitchburg firefighters who were activated.
The heaviest flames were knocked down by 11:38, Belliveau said. Firefighters worked until about 3 a.m. to quell any lingering hot spots.
"I guess I'm still in shock, because I can still joke," said Welch, while watching firefighters douse the flames. "Anybody want to toast marshmallows?"