PHOTO COURTESY OF THE EXECUTIVE OFFICE OF PUBLIC SAFETY AND SECURITY
Gov. Charlie Baker bestows the Medals of Valor on Lt. William Fritz and three other Lynn firefighters for their heroic acts of bravery at a fatal fire on Bruce Place last year. From left: Joseph Fannon, Brett Johnson and Lt. David Stanley.
By THOMAS GRILLO
LYNN — One year after a three-alarm fire killed four people, the pain still lingers for the family and at least one firefighter.
The state’s single deadliest blaze last year at 24 Bruce Place claimed the lives of Yasmin Cruz, 20, a Lynn English High School graduate and a student at North Shore Community College; her mother, Maritza Cruz Vizcaino, 42, a home caregiver; Sonia Cruz, 36, Maritza’s sister, who was pregnant; and Rodolfo Cruz, 28.
“It’s been hell,” said Tomas Cruz, who lost four cousins in the tragedy. “It’s so sad, the family doesn’t like to think about it. We support each other and rely on our church to help us get through.”
Lynn fire kills 4
Lt. William Fritz of the Lynn Fire Department was one of the first firefighters on the scene at 12:46 a.m. on Dec. 4. When engines arrived, a woman was jumping from a second floor window onto the roof of a car to escape while the others were evacuating the three-family home. Flames were blowing out the windows and bystanders said people were trapped on the upper floors.
Fritz, a 20-year veteran of the department, said firefighters couldn’t get in the front door because of the heavy fire on all floors, so they grabbed the hose and entered through the rear.
“We walked up to the second floor landing, opened the back door and the heat threw us down,” Fritz said.
The crew, that included Joseph Fannon, Brett Johnson and Lt. David Stanley, was forced to crawl through the rooms with zero visibility.
“The minute we got in the door, I thought I heard someone moaning so I said, ‘I hear somebody, I hear somebody,’” Fritz said. “I grabbed onto something, I don’t know whether it was an arm or a leg, I couldn’t tell because it was too dark and I couldn’t see, and we pulled the first unconscious woman out who was trapped under furniture in the living room.”
Fritz heard another voice. Stanley entered the kitchen area to continue the search and with conditions rapidly deteriorating, Fannon and Johnson found a second unconscious victim with burn injuries and brought her down the rear staircase and outside.
While the crew was able to save the lives of two women, they could not reach the four others because of the heavy smoke and fire.
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The four firefighters were honored for their bravery with the Medal of Valor last month at Mechanics Hall in Worcester by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
“You go in, you put your mask on, you stay low and it’s just luck whether you find someone or not,” said Fritz. “I feel bad. I wonder what I could have done differently that would have helped save the others, but you realize sometimes there’s not a whole lot you can do.”
Three dozen firefighters battled the blaze at the house where reportedly more than 20 people lived.
The state fire marshal said the cause of the fire is unknown. They suspect it was electrical, but arson and smoking could not be ruled out as a possible cause.
Officials said the fire started in the front stairwell of the triple-decker that was used by the second floor tenants to get to their units. The back stairs were used by the first floor tenants, and they were able to escape this way. The four people who died lived on the second floor and were trapped by the fire. The other second floor tenants managed to escape using the rear stairs, not their usual way out, underscoring how important it is to have a home escape plan with two ways out, the state fire marshal’s report said.
Witnesses said the exterior door to the front stairs was not securely shut, which allowed air from the outside to fuel the fire and the stairwell to act as a chimney. This is where most of the fire damage was and much of the evidence of where the fire started, according to the report.
Examination of the rear stairwell found motion-detection lights with bulbs that were meant for exterior use only, inside the building. These lights draw a heavy wattage and could have caused an electrical fire, the report said. On the building’s exterior, one of the motion-detection lights had left scorch marks on the siding. If the same situation existed inside the front stairwell, it is a possible cause of the fire, the report said.
Investigators found no obvious signs of arson, but since the hallway door was unsecured, they couldn’t rule it out. The accelerant detection dog used in the investigation didn’t find any evidence of arson. The only smokers in the building did so outdoors or in the basement accessed by the back stairwell, not the front stairwell where the fire started. Occupants said that the front hallway was free of trash, leaves, or stored items that might have been easily ignited by smoking materials, or used by someone to intentionally set a fire. There is no evidence smoking started the fire, but it cannot be completely ruled out either, the report said.
Witnesses said they never heard smoke alarms from the hallways, only from inside the apartments. This leads investigators to believe there were no working smoke alarms in the front hallway either, allowing the fire to get a head start before anyone was alerted. The smoke had to enter the individual apartments where those smoke alarms gave people the first warning signs of danger, leaving them little or no time to escape.
For Cruz, he is still haunted by the deaths.
“We don’t like to remember that night,” he said. “We all miss them so much.”
Thomas Grillo can be reached at email@example.com.