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North Adams Apartment Fire Displaces 20 People

By Tammy Daniels
iBerkshires Staff
Amanda Beckwith is reunited with one of her cats. Beckwith lives in the apartment below where the fire broke out. More photos can be seen here.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — About 20 people were temporarily homeless after a fire broke out early Thursday afternoon on the fourth floor of a Furnace Street apartment building.

Damage was limited to one side the eight-unit building at 132-146 Furnace St.; no was injured.

Fire Chief Stephen Meranti said it was possible the tenants in the four units on the south side of the building could return home by the end of the day, depending on the health inspector's approval.

"It's under investigation right now with the North Adams Police and Fire Departments," he said. The fire marshal's office had not been called so far. "It doesn't appear to be suspicious. We're going to do our thing and then if we need to call them, we will."

The building has a commanding view of the city's downtown and smoke could be seen from Main Street pouring from the top of building.

"Leaving the station, we could see the smoke, we called for all off-duty firefighters," said Meranti. "We got on the scene found fire on the rear porch in the roof area. ... It had extended into the attic space."

At about noon, neighbors noticed smoke and flames on the decking on the eastern side of the building. All of the occupants home at the time escaped unharmed.

"I heard crackling and then I smelled something a minute or two later ...  it was a plasticy kind of burning smell," said Amanda Beckwith, who lives in the apartment directly below where the fire started. "Then I looked out the window and saw fire [in the decking above] ... we ran out."

Beckwith, a photographer, ran back in to grab her camera. By the time she realized the seriousness of the situation, the fire trucks had arrived and she was unable to get back in to rescue her cats. By mid-afternoon, two of her pets had been removed unharmed but a three more were still inside.

Animal Control Officer Carrie Loholdt was on the scene to assist with pet recovery.

Fire trucks maneuvered the steep street to get in front of the structure and a ladder truck was used to reach and break through the roof to combat the blaze.

"We had to make sure we kept the front of the building open so we could move the ladder truck in here," Meranti said, explaining some of the difficulties in accessing the building, which is three stories on Furnace but four stories and a steep lawn facing Francis Street below.

"It's very labor intensive to fight a fire in a building like this. The guys took a real beating on this one," he said. "They did a great job getting here quickly the way they did and getting the water on it.  We prevented it from extending to the other apartments."

The Furnace and Francis streets were closed down as firefighters from the city, Adams and Clarksburg brought it under control it. North Adams Ambulance Service was on scene to provide recovery services for firefighters and Williamstown Fire Department was covering the station.

Neighbors and occupants of the building watched from Francis Street as burning shingles fell to the lawn and water poured down.

"The heat and the fire are trapped in the attic, so it's building, accelerating in the attic," said Meranti. "By opening the hole in the roof, you're directing the fire to where you want it to go.    

"So it's not extending horizontally, it's extending the fire vertically so we can get in there and get it from underneath."
 
Meranti said firefighters were successful in doing that, which prevented the blaze from reaching the apartments on the south side. The fire damage was contained to the top apartment in the northeast corner; the apartments below it suffered smoke and water damage.

The gas and electric were shut off but the owner's electrician was going to see if the power could be restored to separate units.

Nichole Bushey, who lives in the apartment where the fire started with her boyfriend, George Sawtelle, said she lost everything. Both she and Sawtelle were at work when the fire started; a friend and neighbor called to tell them what had happened.

Bushey said she'd lived in the building for about a year, but it was the second time a fire had left her homeless. She'd been living in the apartment building on Washington Avenue when it burned down around 2006.

The building's owner Charles Swabey, who owns multiple properties in the city, was confident the building was salvageable: "It's going to be around for a long time."

He said he loved the architecture of the house, which is notable for the number of wrap-around porches and balconies.  

"I bought it in 2003, it was one of the first ones we bought," he said.

Seven of the eight units were occupied and about 20 people were living in the structure. The Red Cross had been contacted.

Update: complete rewrite with comments from fire chief at 4:30 p.m.

 

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