LOWELL - Rotthana Khroeng was lying in bed Friday afternoon when he smelled smoke.
He got up and headed into the living room of his second-floor apartment in the three-decker at 19 Willow St. in the city's densely populated Lower Belvidere neighborhood. The odor became stronger.
"I looked out the window and all I saw were flames," Khroeng, 24, said as he stood outside the building's charred shell yesterday morning. "I just ran out with what I had on me."
Fire Chief Edward Pitta told The Sun investigators believe children playing with a lighter behind a boarded-up multifamily home at 90 Chestnut St. caused the five-alarm blaze that displaced 28 people. No injuries were reported, with the exception of one unidentified firefighter who was taken away in an ambulance, but was alert.
Neighbors said construction workers could be seen in recent weeks fixing up the vacant building, which had boarded-up windows.
Khroeng pointed out where the fire originated, in the narrow alley between the houses. The siding on both buildings melted, leaving remnants of charred wood beneath and gaping holes in the walls and roofs. The blaze, which broke out about 3:30 p.m., quickly spread to a third home at 84-86 Chestnut St. Clouds of heavy smoke blanketed the downtown.
Pitta said it is impossible to be certain, but he believes the damage may have been less extensive had the High Street fire station (Engine 4), which is one-fifth of a mile from the scene, been open. It, as well as Ladder 3 at the Civic Center downtown, were closed Friday for budget reasons.
"It is always hard to tell, but I certainly would have liked our chances better had Engine 4 been in quarters, especially with how quickly that fire moved and was jumping from building to building," he said. "We may have been able to get a line on it and stop it from jumping to the other buildings."
The city has been closing some stations at different times since 1992. From January 2009, when the city budget crisis hit a peak, until late 2010, there were, at times, up to three companies out of service.
The practice became a hot-button issue, raised by Lt. David Keene, president of the firefighters' union, in October 2010 in the wake of a Bridge Street fire that left two residents dead and two firefighters injured. At the time of that early-morning blaze, Ladder 4 on West Sixth Street, Engine 4 on High Street and the rescue company downtown were closed. Had all three been staffed, there would have been nine additional firefighters available.
"After the Bridge Street fire, there were a lot of conversations between myself and (City Manager Bernie Lynch) and between the manager and the union," Pitta said. "In February of 2011, the manager put more money into our overtime account and since that point we have not closed three stations on one shift. The most we close now are two at a time and we hire if we have to."
Keene agreed with Pitta's assessment that while it is impossible to tell for sure, Engine 4 and Ladder 3 could have made a difference. Keene credited Lynch and Pitta for working with the union to reduce station closures.
On Friday, mutual aid responded to the fire from as far away as Lawrence, Methuen, Nashua and Pelham, N.H., Wilmington, Burlington and Haverhill. Fire crews also responded from Tyngsboro, Chelmsford, Tewksbury, Billerica, Dracut and Westford.
The fire was contained by 5 p.m.
Khroeng moved into the apartment two months ago and had just bought new furnishings, including a new bedroom set.
"I lost everything," he said, adding he will stay with his aunt for now until he can figure out his next move.
At the Lowell Senior Center, which has been turned into a temporary shelter for those displaced by the fire, a handful of children ran around the community room as their parents filled out paperwork and talked with American Red Cross volunteers, who had put out a spread of coffee, doughnuts, cereal and fruit for the guests.
According to Harlan Lieberman-Berg, the shelter manager, 15 people, including five children, stayed at the center Friday night, sleeping on cots and warmed by blankets provided by the city.
Red Cross spokeswoman Kat Powers said Saints Medical Center, located a block from the fire scene, donated 35 towels and face cloths for the shelter.
"Ellen Shaughnessy was the head nurse for the night and was totally awesome in helping us out," Powers said.
"And as the fire was happening, the folks at Christ Church United not only opened their doors but gave everyone dinner as we collected everyone. Lowell Transit took folks from the UCC to the shelter location."
Pitta said Mark Boldrighini, the city's emergency management coordinator, said the goal is to relocate the remaining six families by the end of the weekend.
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