LOWELL, Mass. (AP) — The building where five members of one family died along with two other victims in an intense blaze had an alarm system, yet witnesses say no warning sounded. That’s one thing investigators are focusing on, along with reports that sounds of fireworks or an explosion preceded the flames.
One victim of Massachusetts’ deadliest fire in 20 years had fireworks in his apartment, his brother said, but investigators have not suggested a possible cause or said fireworks may have played a role. It’s illegal for individuals to possess fireworks in Massachusetts.
A police officer on routine patrol was the first to report the fire around 4 a.m., while several tenants ran about 100 yards to a fire station, Fire Chief Edward Pitta said. But the blaze was burning strong by the time firefighters arrived.
“I expect this to be a long and thorough process,” Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said, whose office is part of the investigation.
Ryan said she is “deeply concerned” by reports that no fire alarms sounded. The building did not have a sprinkler system but was not required to, Pitta said.
Building owner Sanjay Patel said in a statement he is cooperating with the investigation, adding that the building had passed every inspection since he bought it in 2007.
He also expressed condolences.
“Words cannot begin to express the sadness I feel for everyone affected by the devastating fire (Thursday) morning,” Patel said.
Among the victims were Torn Sak, his longtime girlfriend, Ellen Vuong, and three of their 5 children: a 7-year-old girl, a 9-year-old boy and a 12-year-old boy, according to Torn’s brother Thearan Sak.
Sak said his brother enjoyed fireworks and had some stored in his apartment.
The victims in this former mill city about 25 miles northwest of Boston were all found in units on the top floor of the building, which had a liquor store on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors, fire officials said. Authorities have not confirmed the identities of the victims.
Sar Soth, 43, escaped from a third-floor apartment along with her two stepchildren and two adults by climbing through a window and then down a firefighters’ ladder. She said she was having trouble sleeping when she heard a boom, saw fire outside and started screaming for the others to wake.
Her stepdaughter, Soriha Proeung, 11, said she yelled for firefighters to bring the ladder to their window.
“We all felt like in five minutes we were going to die,” Proeung said. “I couldn’t see. My eyes, my chest burned … I just wanted to get saved.”
Neighbor Sarin Chun said she awoke to screams and saw someone hand a child out a window to another person on the street. Witnesses said tenants jumped out of windows.
Thearan Sak said his mother called him and told him his brother’s apartment building was on fire.
“I went to the scene hoping that everybody made it out, but when I pulled up … I only saw two of my nephews,” he said, adding that he was later told the others had died.
“It’s sad to see my brother and his family go out like that,” he said.
A Cambodian community group and local Buddhist monks led a vigil near the burned building Thursday evening. Lowell has one of the nation’s largest populations of Cambodian descent, including several of the fire victims.
It was the deadliest fire in Massachusetts in two decades, state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said. A family of seven perished in a fire in North Attleborough on Christmas Eve in 1994.
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