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Some Mill House residents at Quality Inn

Cause of fire still unknown

Workers tear up the rugs and clean the third floor of the Mill House outside apartment  #309, where a scorched door can be seen. 
(Recorder/Paul Franz)

Workers tear up the rugs and clean the third floor of the Mill House outside apartment #309, where a scorched door can be seen. (Recorder/Paul Franz)

GREENFIELD — Early Wednesday morning, Raul Cruz rushed up and down the stairs of the Mill House Apartments to and from his third-floor apartment.

His graying hair was singed and he looked exhausted. Cruz hurriedly gathered clothes from his apartment for his wife and 8-year-old son. He was uncertain as he headed toward the Quality Inn on the Mohawk Trail. He shrugged hopelessly when asked when his family would be able to return to their home of 10 years, one of several damaged in a Tuesday night fire.

Across the hall, Greenfield Fire Chief Robert Strahan examined the 103-apartment 75 Wells St. building of single and double apartments for elderly and low-income residents.

A team of restoration specialists carried bags of debris outside and pulled up the smoky, wet carpets on the first three floors of the building. Property Manager Nancy Bannister surveyed the building for damage.

Throughout the soaked and dripping-wet building, a smell of acrid smoke persisted, sticking to the hair and clothes of people inside.

Cruz was one of about 15 individuals and families of the Mill House staying at the Quality Inn temporarily. Others were able to stay in their apartments.

Hours before, at about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, fire broke out in apartment 309, where Ethyl Wheeler and Beth MacDonald have lived for five years.

The exact cause of the fire is still under investigation, Strahan said, but it appears to be accidental. The Greenfield Police and Fire departments and the state Fire Marshal’s Office investigated.

About 100 firefighters from Bernardston, Deerfield, Erving, Gill, Shelburne, South Deerfield, Montague Center, Northfield and Brattleboro, Vt., responded and knocked down the fire within 15 minutes.

When initial crews arrived, they found heavy smoke on the third floor and stretched a hose line to reach the fire in the apartment. With smoke billowing throughout the third floor, firefighters used thermal imaging cameras to see.

The firefighters’ quick response and the makeup of the former Millers Falls Tools Co. factory helped compartmentalize the fire in the single apartment, Strahan said.

The damage was extensive. While the fire was mostly contained in the single apartment, some sprinklers in the hallways were activated, causing water damage on the first and second floors. The third floor suffered smoke damage as well. The elevator needs to be repaired and several community rooms need to be repaired. The majority of damage is from water, Strahan said.

A total of 15 apartments suffered enough water and smoke damage that the building’s owner has put their occupants up at the motel. Bannister declined to comment on the situation when asked how long the landlord would provide temporary housing. Strahan said he did not know how long it would be until the families could return.

Despite many tenants who use wheelchairs, the evacuation went well, Strahan said. The wheelchair users were gathered in the community rooms and rescued by the firefighters. The Greenfield Fire Department called in extra crews to get people out of danger and Baystate Health Ambulance assigned a paramedic to help.

Ten Red Cross volunteers and one staff member responded to the fire to provide food and water to firefighters and residents, said Dawn Leaks, communications director for the regional Red Cross.

The displaced

At the Quality Inn Wednesday, several residents, wearing the only clothes they had left with, also wondered when they could go home.

The fire was a shock for many residents who have grown accustomed to false alarms in the building.

It took the warning of Wheeler yelling from the third floor to get many people moving, MacDonald said.

MacDonald said she and her roommate did not have any electrical items on or candles lit and does not know what could have caused the fire.

MacDonald had spent the evening at the Temple Israel. When she called a cab for a ride home, the cab driver told her that her home was on fire.

“All I could think of was my roommate,” MacDonald remembered. “I was praying that no one died in it.”

Outside the apartment building, MacDonald walked in the bone-chilling air among the firefighters looking for her friend of 10 years. On the north side of the building, she found “what seemed like a sea of people. They all told me she’s alive. I almost fainted.”

As far as she knew, MacDonald and Wheeler, who do not have renter’s insurance, lost everything.

Donna Gilchrest lives right below the apartment that caught fire. In the ceiling of her second-floor apartment, a huge hole burned through and water dripped down onto her belongings, she said. Gilchrest, who has lived with her daughter at Mill House for eight years, said she didn’t know the extent of damage to her property. She also does not have renter’s insurance.

“It was devastating to see the apartment,” Gilchrest said. “I don’t know what my belongings are like and I have no idea when I can get home.”

Nanette Russello was in a third-floor community room when the fire alarms sounded. As she neared her second-floor apartment, she saw smoke coming from within. She found her daughter on the fourth floor and both escaped outside.

“I could see the smoke and smell it,” Russello said. “I don’t know how long we’ll be staying here,” Russello said.

Though they had little clothing besides what they wore and had no idea of when they could go home, many of the residents were thankful that all they lost were material things. Much of their thanks went to the firefighters who responded to help them escape.

“It’s very surreal right now,” said MacDonald. “But material things don’t matter as much as the sea of life I walked into and was glad to see. The Greenfield Fire Department was commendable. They were very helpful and so good to us.”

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at: kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 268.

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