April 16, 2014

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Rolling Green fire claims life of one UMass student, about 30 left homeless

Evan Sahagian/Collegian

A University of Massachusetts student was killed in a fire that left about 30 people homeless, including 22 UMass students, after it quickly spread through 10 units at Rolling Green apartments early Monday morning.

The body of the male victim had been removed from the scene but was not identified as of 4 p.m. Monday. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will identify the victim, whose body was found on the second floor of the apartment unit in which the fire was said to have begun, according to a press release.

Fire officials confirmed that the deceased man was a UMass student.

Neighbors said the victim was a senior and that he lived in unit 202 in the complex.

“The focus has been on identifying the body,” Assistant Fire Chief Lindsay Stromgren of the Amherst Fire Department said, responding to a question about the cause of the fire. Stromgren said he believes the incident is Amherst’s first fatal fire in nearly a decade.

UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski issued a brief statement Monday evening, saying “This is a terrible tragedy, and we deeply mourn this loss of life. The university is providing support to all UMass students and their families affected by the fire.”

No cause has been determined, but the fire is being investigated by state and local personnel from the Northwestern District Attorney’s office and by the Amherst fire and police departments.

Stromgren said the fire, which was reported at 4:43 a.m., left five units of the 422 Belchertown Road complex completely destroyed internally, while the other half attached were damaged significantly.

Many residents awoke startled and confused by a loud noise. For many, that noise was followed by the sound of neighbors banging on doors to alert others of the flames.

“There was, like, a boom everybody heard, and nobody really knew how to describe it,” said Mark Metivier, a UMass student who lost his belongings in the fire. “Our neighbor thought it was the window breaking, in their room.”

“There was no fire alarms, or smoke alarms, rather, there was somebody out in the street yelling, like, ‘Fire! Fire!,’” said Dan Hewitt, one of Metivier’s roommates.

“It spread faster than you would think it would,” Hewitt added.

Hewitt and Metivier, along with fellow roommates and UMass students Dave Carusotto and Gregg Moncari, lived adjacent to the unit where the fire broke out. The fire had spread to nearly all of the building’s rooftops within 15 minutes of the roommates waking up. They all made it out of the apartment, taking refuge from the bitterly cold morning in a car as police and fire personnel responded to the blaze.

The first engine arrived at the scene about 4:50 a.m.

Upon arrival, Stromgren said he observed “heavy fire from the second floors,” which “looked like it had already ascended into the attics” of some units in the building. The building hosted units 195 to 204 – all of which sustained heavy damaged.

Evan Sahagian/Collegian

He said all residents other than the victim had safely evacuated to outside parking lots upon the fire department’s arrival.

Stromgren said that besides two firefighters slipping on ice outside the apartments, no firefighters sustained injuries battling the blaze.

After an initial search, crews were ordered to withdraw from the building due to heavy fire and a partial roof collapse. Crews were granted re-entry after the majority of the fire was combated with the use of two ladder trucks, according to a press release.

The fire was under control by 7 a.m., Stromgren said. By that time, volunteers from the Pioneer Valley Chapter of the Red Cross were on location assisting displaced residents and providing them with food, warmth and temporary shelter.

“The Red Cross gave us more than we could have ever asked for,” said Metivier.

A Rolling Green employee contacted Monday said she couldn’t answer whether or not all the displaced residents would be relocated to other Rolling Green apartments. She also said the complex would release a statement about the displaced residents’ housing.

Stromgren said residents would not be able to retrieve belongings on their own. Fire personnel would go back into apartments to salvage personal items like electronics or other valuables because of the weak condition of the structures.

“They won’t be able to go into the apartments probably ever, because of the safety. They’ll have to work with the property managers and the insurance company to retrieve any belongings that might have survived,” Stromgren said.

“They said it’s a total loss. The upstairs has extensive water and fire damage. I don’t know what can be saved,” said Stephanie Jernigan, a four-year resident who lived only a couple units away from the start of the blaze.

Jernigan escaped with her 13-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, as well as an urn containing her mother’s ashes in tow. Jernigan said she will live in another apartment offered by Rolling Green management.

“The Red Cross has been very helpful and I’m thankful to Rolling Green that they have another apartment for me,” Jernigan added. “It will keep it somewhat normal for my kids to have an apartment that is like the same. I am going to just take it day by day I guess.”

Rebecca Humphrey, Alyssa Creamer and Despina Durand contributed to this report.

Chelsie Field can be reached at cfield@student.umass.edu.

 

Comments
3 Responses to “Rolling Green fire claims life of one UMass student, about 30 left homeless”
  1. Dr. Ed Cutting says:

    I am going to say this: The Rolling Green fire didn’t have to happen — not like it did. There might have been a fire, and the wind didn’t help, but there was no need for a tragic conflagration of that magnitude to occur.

    Rolling Green, like most of the apartment complexes, was built in the 1970s before the current codes came into effect. (Massachusetts didn’t even have a building code until 1975 — seriously.) That building doesn’t have a sprinkler system, nor does it have a monitored fire alarm system that leads directly to the fire department being notified whenever the alarm goes off. All it had — and I believe still only has — is a single battery-powered smoke detector per unit, two in the “townhouse” style units.

    Worse, while there is some fire protection between units, most of these apartment complexes share a common roof assembly for all the units in the same building, I believe this is the case in Rolling Green. Hence while the majority of fire damage can be contained to one apartment, once the fire gets up above the upstairs ceiling, there really is nothing to stop it from leaping to all the other apartments in the building.

    Even worse than this, smoke rises and thus if the fire is higher than the highest smoke detector, there is absolutely nothing to indicate there is a fire until someone happens to see flames shooting out of somewhere. This is what happened in North Village some years back — a tenant happened to notice that his bathroom exhaust fan was on fire — and even though this good luck led to an earlier report of the fire than otherwise would have happened, both that unit and the adjacent one were destroyed.

    And then there is the issue of the South Amherst Fire Station. The AFD’s response time to the South Amherst apartment complexes (including Rolling Green via Strong Street) is considered to be unacceptably long, both in terms of the number of people living down there and the number of Fire/Ambulance calls they generate, and there has been a great deal of talk about increasing the size of the fire department and building a station down there.

    Instead the town has decided to hire more police officers. The town has not made an issue of these shared attics lacking fire detection devices of any kind and while the university has been quite helpful to the landlords in punishing students for off-campus activities, the university has been quite negligent in not advocating for its students with these same landlords.

    While sprinklers can get expensive — and up in an attic space you also have to prevent them from freezing — heat detectors are cheap and while these attics may get too hot for regular heat detectors to be used, there are also “rate of rise” ones that trip not from an actual temperature but when the temperature is going up more than 15 degrees per minute.

    And when the automated dialer calls you and tells you that the temperature in the attic is increasing by more than 15 degrees per *minute* — on a cold January night — it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that someone ought to get down there fairly quickly and figure out why — and the AFD would have arrived there 20-30 minutes earlier, possibly when only the bedroom itself was really on fire, and things would have turned out a lot differently.

    It’s not that most off-campus students live in apartments that fail to meet modern fire safety standards as much as they fail to meet the standards that were in effect when their PARENTS were in college, a generation ago! There is no excuse for this, and if the landlords want UMass to be involved in off-campus life, there is no excuse for UMass not to insist on basic life safety measures for these students.

    The landlords in Amherst are powerful, the university hasn’t advocated for the students, and hence most of the students living off campus reside in far riskier venues than they ever imagined. Regardless of what caused this fire, it didn’t have to be this bad and perhaps it is time for the student government to start pressuring action in response to what I consider to have been a preventable tragedy.

    En Loco Parentis is a responsibility, not a grant of authority, and sometimes I think that most of Whitmore forgets that…

  2. Barbara Black says:

    Reminds me of my senior year and I lost campus housing and forced to for search elusive place to live in September. I found a place but it was in the house of basement. My mom went with me to take a look at it and told me that she would not co-sign anything that did not have an alternate escape route (there was only one way in and out). I thought she was a hard ass but in retrospect, she just may have saved my life.
    If my memory serves me right, there was another fatal fire in 1990 that was in Amherst center that was suppose to be THE wake up call for off-campus housing. I thought things would change but sounds like landlords are still not held responsible and code violations are going unnoticed.

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