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

By Chelsie Field

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 [email protected]