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Fire Destroys Apartment Complex, Dozens Displaced

Norwich -- A massive, early morning six-alarm fire has destroyed more than 100-units at an apartment complex on 2 Westledge Drive.

The fire broke out at about 1:25 a.m. this morning and spread quickly beneath a peaked roof that was added several years ago to prevent rainwater from collecting on the flat roof. But the structure contained no so-called firebreaks, allowing the flames to reach all corners of the expansive complex, fire officials said. The building did not have sprinklers. The building had smoke and fire alarms, which were operational.

"It got ahead of us," Fire Chief Kenneth Scandariato said. "It was just too much fire to mount an attack to stop it."

About 150 people resided at the Peachtree apartment complex, 20 of those are disabled, fire officials said.

Not all residents have been accounted for.

At 10 a.m., Fire Chief Kenneth Scandariato said 105 of the 150 residents had been accounted for and police and fire officials would spend much of today trying to create a master list of tenants and their whereabouts. He said officials remain concerned that there could be fatalities in the fire. But some residents may have left the scene in the middle of the night to go to homes of family or friends without checking in with authorities.

Any Peachtree residents or family and friends of residents are asked to call Norwich Police at 886-5561, ext. 6 and report their situations.

One nonresident civilian was injured, but no firefighters were injured as of 10 a.m., the chief said.

Scandariato said firefighters arrived within minutes of receiving the call, but immediately found themselves hampered by the fast-moving blaze and the need to ensure all residents were evacuated. Police and firefighters heard tenants yelling for help and went through the building knocking on as many doors as possible helping people escape. Some had time only to grab a jacket and put on shoes.

"Some people got out with just what they were wearing in bed," he said. "It was that quick for us."

Firefighters could not get to one block of apartments on the right side, where the fire started, Scandariato said. Later, firefighters were only able to do a secondary check on 31 apartments. The others were destroyed, too hot to access or were collapsing and unsafe, the chief said.

One first-floor resident who declined to give his name, said he was wakened by his cat scratching at the door to come in. He opened the door and saw the center courtyard engulfed in flames. He then heard the fire alarm and people yelling "fire."

The man escaped and returned later to search for his cat, which had remained outdoors.

An emergency shelter has been set up at the Uncas School at 280 Elizabeth St. Ext. There were 91 people at the shelter as of early this morning, according to Sue Rochester-Bolen, manager of emergency services for the Red Cross. She said it is difficult to get an accurate count of the number of people living at the complex since not all people have been accounted for.

"In the 30 years I have done this as a volunteer and paid staff, this is by far the worse tragedy that has affected us," said Rochester- Bolen.

Rochester-Bolen said there are 120 units in the building. She said it was a single and mixed-family apartment complex.

"Itís the weekend and the hotels are full and with donor dollars we canít be placing 150 people in hotels," said Rochester-Bolen.

She is helping residents make arrangements to stay with friends and relatives.

Jessica Ferguson lived in unit 12-B on the third-floor of the building near Woodside Avenue. She had previously lived at the complex but moved out of state and just two weeks ago returned to the complex.

Ferguson said for some reason she woke up and heard the sound of a fire alarm. She looked out a back window and saw the entire rear of the complex on fire.

Ferguson said statutes on her porch were exploding and the glass of her sliding-glass window was starting to crack.

She quickly grabbed her 5-year-old son Hayden Minnich and ran out of the complex. As she made her way out of the apartment, she alerted neighbors to the fire. She helped a 70-year-old woman who takes care of her autistic grandson get out of the complex.

As soon as she reached the parking lot, Ferguson said flames exploded out of her front window.

She got a ride to her motherís house who also lives in Norwich.

"Iíve lost everything," said Ferguson.

At the shelter, people were still in their nightgowns and slippers.

Joe Grant lived in building one, which is still standing. He was in his apartment awake. He had just got back from a concert at Mohegan Sun.

Grant said he heard the fire alarms around 2 a.m. He looked outside and noticed flames across the courtyard. He said within five to 10 minutes the fire was shooting through the roof.

Grant managed to get his laptop and wallet before he fled the apartment. He lived there for 10 months.

"I got my butt out of there," said Grant. "ÖYou hang in there but what other choice you got."

Police Chief Louis Fusaro along with city and fire officials went to the shelter to talk to the residents. Many of the displaced residents asked when they could go back to their apartments and retrieve items such as their vehicles.

Officials could not give them a firm answer as to when they could go back.

Fusaro later said it was "still a work in progress" in trying to account for everyone.

The entire police midnight shift went to the fire scene, with them forcing their way into apartments and getting people out of their beds.

"It's one of the worst fires in recent memory," he said.

Donna Gremminger, animal control officer, was also at the shelter, trying to help people find their pets.

She said three cats were at the pound; two cats and two ferrets were found at the scene. Twenty cats are still missing. 

Several city and social service agencies are also at the scene, including city Department of Human Services, Emergency Management, the Uncas Health District and Southeastern Mental Health Authority.

Officials from the private firm Supervised Living Apartments, which has seven clients in the building, said the agencyís third-shift staff successfully evacuated their clients.

Scandariato said the fire was extremely difficult to fight, but was contained by 10 a.m. He expected fire crews would have to stay on the scene for about three days to quell hot spots, investigate the cause of the fire and clean up the debris.

Much of the complex was completely destroyed, with only segments of free-standing brick walls remaining. The left side of the building remained intact, but the entire roofline was destroyed. Firefighters perched on tower ladders aimed high-powered hoses into the building as colored and white smoke billowed from the building.

Scandariato said the entire complex would have to be demolished.

Scandariato said the fire started at the rear right corner of the complex, but it was unsure whether it started outside or inside the building. Fire quickly spread up the three stories and into the peaked roof to the rest of the complex.

"Once the fire gets in there (the roof), it takes off," he said.

According to city tax records, the complex is owned by Peachtree Limited Partnership of McLean, Va. The complex, built in 1970, is 45,900 square feet of living space. Scandariato said the owners were cooperating fully in the investigation.

Officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were on the scene to help with the investigation. Scandariato said he called for assistance, because of the size and extent of the fire. Firefighters and police did remove privately-owned guns from at least one apartment. There were no explosions during the fire.

Fire crews from all six city departments and several others from surrounding towns responded to the blaze.

Scandariato said city officials will ask Gov. M. Jodi Rellís office for emergency disaster relief funding to cover some of the costs of fighting the fire, the investigation and the cleanup. City Manager Alan Bergren and Mayor Benjamin Lathrop were at the scene this morning, but did not immediately speak to the press.

Later Bergren said city Emergency Management Director Gene Arters will be filing an emergency declaration with the state Department of Emergency Management seeking assistance with the cost of Saturday's fire. Anthony Scalora of the state OEM was at the fire scene Saturday. He said city officials don't know yet the cost of fighting the fire, providing services to the displaced tenants and cleaning the debris.

"The magnitude of this fire, the resources we had to bring to bear and the burden to our residents, this certainly is a major disaster for the city," Bergren said.

Day Staff Writers M. Matthew Clark and Izaskun E. Larraneta contributed to this report.

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