PAWTUCKET — Graciette Nobre sat next to her tearful mother and other family members on the curb across from 191 Harrison Street on Monday as officials walked in and around the burned-out multi-family that was their home until yesterday afternoon. “I just want to get in there and see if I can get my car keys, and find any of my stuff,” she said. “All of my things, my documents, are in there.”
Some photographs in blackened frames topped the small pile of belongings that were located after a swift-moving fire wreaked havoc on a block of Harrison Street on Sunday. All told, five apartment buildings were damaged — two beyond repair — and three other shed/garage structures burned to the ground. A pit bull and two pet birds perished and 33 people were displaced.
Pawtucket Fire Chief William Sisson said the call came in at about 1:20 p.m. When the first firefighters arrived, they found a vacant house at 193-195 fully engulfed in flames. Seeing how close the burning building was to several other multi-family houses, firefighters called in two other alarms and eventually a fourth. Pawtucket was assisted by firefighters from North Providence, Central Falls, Providence and East Providence, and a Lincoln rescue.
Firefighters were on the scene until about 9 p.m. There were no civilian injuries, but a Pawtucket firefighter suffered a foot injury and a North Providence firefighter was transported to a hospital for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, Sisson said.
Sisson noted that while battling the Harrison Street fire, a call came in about a brush fire at the Tomlinson Sports Complex on Daggett Avenue. He said firefighters from Central Falls and East Providence filled in at the Pawtucket fire stations so Pawtucket could respond to that scene. “Everything is so dry right now, and it was very windy. People need to be really careful,” he said.
Pawtucket Fire Capt. Robert Thurber, the city’s fire marshal, said the cause of the fire is still under investigation. He said the blaze apparently started in a large attached garage or shed that was in the rear of a vacant house at 193-195 Harrison St. Driven by heavy winds, the flames jumped to the three-family house, 191 Harrison St., which is immediately next door.
The heat of the flames melted the siding on apartment houses flanking both sides of first two burning buildings, said Thurber. A combination of blowing embers, dry grass and trash such as discarded mattresses, couches, and other household items in the yards behind the houses caused the fire to spread to other outbuildings, fences and grass. “It was unbelievable,” he said, of the way the blaze kept moving and igniting neighboring properties.
A large garage that was consumed by flames threatened another multi-family that officials determined to be 187 Harrison St. “The firefighters kept the water trained on that one, or it would have been gone as well,” noted Thurber. Despite the melted and charred siding, this three-story house was spared, although the tenants in its three apartments were relocated due to the utilities having to be shut off.
Thurber said the Pawtucket Police and State Fire Marshals Office are also involved in the investigation. He said that several of the people interviewed have given conflicting stories about what might have started the blaze, and the cause remains undetermined. “It’s still an active investigation,” he said.
While the house where the blaze originated was vacant, fire officials said 23 people had been living at 191 Harrison St., including 13 on the third floor, two on the second floor, who were out at the time, and eight on the first floor. The Rhode Island Red Cross was called in to help provide lodging.
Nobre said her sister had been giving her kids a bath and another family member was making breakfast in their first floor apartment when her brother told them a firefighter had warned them to get out because of smoke spreading from the house next door. The family of eight, which includes four children ranging in age from four to three-months-old, quickly exited. They found temporary lodging at Nobre’s father’s house, but now are faced with the loss of all of their furniture, clothing and household possessions, Nobre said.
Mike Nuias said his mother and his eight brothers and sisters had been among the family of 13 who occupied the third floor of 191 Harrison St. He said from what he was told, firefighters had knocked at the door of the apartment and told his family to evacuate. He said that only about half of the family had been home at the time, and his mother and several other relatives had been relocated to a hotel.
As he watched from across the street, he, like Nobre, said it appeared from the looks of the charred remains of the apartment that the family had lost just about everything.
According to the Pawtucket Tax Assessor’s Office, 191 Harrison St., valued at $158,800, and the property behind it at 187 Harrison St., valued at $155,200, are both owned by a Bid II, LLC. The vacant house at 193-195 Harrison St., last valued at $138,600, is owned by Antonio Gonsalves, according to city records.