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    Thursday, August 18, 2022

    'You just want to help out': Good Samaritans worked together to help during May fire in Groton City

    Mark Toscano (Submitted photo)

    Groton — Mark Toscano, a materials engineer at Electric Boat in Groton, was driving down Thames Street on his way home from work on May 5, when he saw smoke.

    The smoke was pouring out of a double-duplex at 273-279 Thames St. He parked his car and approached an apartment on the north side that had smoke coming out the window. Through the window, he saw a smoke-filled room and heard cries for help.

    Toscano said he knew he had to do something.

    Toscano, 63, a Westerly, R.I., resident who has worked at EB for 38 years, said he went to the front door but it was locked, so he kicked it in. He went into a hallway where there was a set of French doors, but he had to keep running outside to get fresh air because the smoke was so thick. He ended up jockeying open the French doors to get inside the apartment. He told one of the women inside, who was struggling to get an elderly woman into a wheelchair, to leave immediately. He said he then went to carry out the elderly woman, and other people that were there assisted in carrying her out to the lawn.

    Toscano and Groton City residents Jennifer Durfee, Jesse Belcher and Eric McElroy said they all helped the elderly resident, who they did not know, get to safety, and shared their stories with The Day about why they helped. They were all nearby right after the fire broke out.

    EMTs gave the two building residents oxygen and brought them to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation. Groton City fire Chief Robert Tompkins said in May that two occupants of the building were treated and released.

    City of Groton Fire Department Deputy Chief and Deputy Fire Marshal Edward Sargent said the fire has been ruled accidental.  

    Toscano said that, as a materials engineer, he knows a lot about fire because he handles materials and knows about fire prevention and flammability, and he felt he had to help.

    “I mean once you hear cries for help, I just had no other choice. I had to go in to the point where I had to keep going until I couldn’t. It was close,” said Toscano, who was coughing up soot for hours afterward.

    He said helping people is in his nature: “Life is short, and you do whatever you can to help people to the maximum of your ability and don’t ignore situations when they are presented.”

    Jennifer Durfee, and her boyfriend, Jesse Belcher, who are in their 30s and live in Groton City, were driving down Thames Street on their way home and saw smoke coming out of the building. They thought it was odd, so they decided to pull over and make sure everybody was all right.

    When they heard that somebody was in the house, Durfee said, they just started running toward the house as the smoke billowed, and a wall of smoke hit their faces as they walked through the door. They helped carry the elderly woman out to the lawn, she said.

    She said the smoke was so thick, she was grateful they drove by when they did and were able to help.

    Durfee works at EB and is an Army veteran, and Belcher works for a contractor for EB and is a Navy veteran. Durfee said everything they went through during their military service taught them to look past fear until they can make the situation right.

    She said she gives so much credit to people who volunteer to do this kind of thing every day because it was a terrifying experience, even after being active duty in the Army for five years and going through some of the experiences she did.

    “Don’t be afraid to be kind and compassionate and help people out when they need it because you don’t ever know if you’re going to need help or if your family’s going to need help,” she said, “and for me, I would really hope that if I wasn’t ever able to be there for my family, that I could count on somebody to show an act of kindness to help them out in a time of need.”

    Eric McElroy, who is in his 50s and lives nearby in the neighborhood, said his daughter Molly, who is in her 20s, had smelled smoke outside so they both went outside to check. He said the neighborhood has had several fires in the recent past.

    When they spotted smoke coming from the chimney of 273-279 Thames St. and then coming up from around the bottom of the building, he called 911.

    McElroy said he feared for his own safety because he has a family, but as soon as he saw someone else go into the building to help, he went to see if there was anything he could do to help. He said he didn’t go very far into the building due to the thick smoke.

    He encouraged one of the women to leave immediately and then assisted in carrying the feet of the elderly lady to help get her safely to the lawn once she was out of the building.

    McElroy said it feels good to have helped but isn’t looking for any credit.

    “I certainly don’t feel special for it,” said McElroy, who has lived in the area for almost 30 years. “You live in a neighborhood that you know of people and you know who lives here and they’re all good folk, so you just want to help out.”


    Jennifer Durfee and her boyfriend, Jesse Belcher, both helped during the May 5 fire on Thames Street in Groton City. (Courtesy of Jennifer Durfee).
    First responders tend to a woman rescued from her apartment during a smoky blaze May 5, 2022, at 273-279 Thames St. in Groton City. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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