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Gloucester fire leaves 1 dead, many questions

Email|Print| Text size + By Matt Viser and Scott Allen
Globe Staff / December 16, 2007

GLOUCESTER - A 70-year-old man died yesterday after his four-story apartment building burst into flames just yards from fire department headquarters on a night when fire officials acknowledge that they were understaffed by at least two firefighters.

The man was identified by several neighbors as longtime resident Robert L. Taylor.

The ladder truck called upon to rescue Taylor at about 12:30 a.m. yesterday had only a single firefighter assigned to it because the other two crew members had been sent to unrelated emergencies. The driver, firefighter James Capillo, said he had to recruit two police officers to help him set up a cumbersome 35-foot ladder below Taylor's window.

Witnesses said Taylor could be seen waving his arms through the smoke, but by the time the ladder was set up, he had disappeared. Firefighter Marc Nicastro went inside as colleagues below urged him to stay out. The young firefighter reached Taylor's side, but the disabled man was too heavy to move and Nicastro had to retreat, Capillo said.

"He had a lot of courage to go in that window. We were yelling at him not to go in," Capillo said in a phone interview. "Once you've been around awhile, you can read what the smoke is doing. This room was about to flip over" to fire.

The massive eight-alarm fire destroyed the nearly 100-year-old apartment building, which had about 29 units and was home to 27 people, and a neighboring synagogue on Gloucester's historic Middle Street. Officials are still investigating the cause of the fire, which began in the basement or first floor of the apartment building, according to Fire Chief Barry McKay. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries when they slipped on ice. A fire official at headquarters said he had not seen a damage estimate yet but predicted it would be in the millions.

McKay, whose department has battled staffing shortages since voters rejected a tax increase in 2004, confirmed that there were only 15 firefighters working Friday night, even though minimum staffing levels in the union contract call for at least 17. Initially, McKay said only a handful of the available firefighters went to the scene because the call had only reported a smoke alarm going off.

McKay said he was focused yesterday mostly on putting out the smoldering fire and had not been fully debriefed by his staff so he could not be certain of which firefighters showed up when. But he said that by shortly after midnight, 11 firefighters had responded.

McKay acknowledged that the shortage of firefighters could have made the fast-moving fire more difficult to contain at first, though firefighters from 17 towns and government agencies eventually came to Gloucester to assist.

"It could have contributed. But you can second-guess these things until you're blue in the face," said McKay. "We're not Boston, unfortunately, and we don't have the coverage or number of companies . . . We're just like every other community struggling for resources. I'll still give my guys an A-plus."

Mayor John Bell, when asked about current staffing levels, said, "We have suffered from the same pain as most of the other cities and towns in Massachusetts, which have been cut back in local aid over the past six or seven years."

"Things are not great relative to funding levels," he said. "Cutbacks have been made against increased levels of health insurance, energy costs, contractual agreements."

He expressed his support of the fire department's response to the fire. "My hats are off to the entire fire department," he said.

Governor Deval Patrick, who visited the site about 11 a.m., shaking hands with firefighters and speaking with local officials, called the fire "devastating."

"I came here to offer my concern and support," he said.

Capillo declined to speculate on whether firefighters could have saved Taylor if more people had been assigned to the ladder truck called upon to rescue him, but others said the tragedy is symptomatic of a fire department that has been battling budget cuts and public safety questions since voters rejected a tax increase in 2004.

Last year, a 42-year-old woman, Bridget Clary, died of smoke inhalation when firefighters took 11 minutes to reach her burning house because the fire station nearest her home had been closed. This time, the death occurred directly across the street from the main fire station's front door.

"I don't believe they have the resources to do their jobs well," said Russell Hobbs, a Gloucester resident who led a brief campaign to recall Mayor Bell for providing inadequate fire protection after the Oct. 1, 2006, fire that killed Clary. "They are putting their lives on the line for us and they should have the tools to do it," he said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Anne Burton, a 36-year-old resident who believes she made the first 911 call just after 11:40 p.m. Friday, said she thought the fire department responded slowly, especially considering her proximity to the fire station. The call came in at 11:44 p.m. according to 911 tape reviewed by the Globe.

Burton said she reported that the building's smoke alarms were going off, then waited five minutes before three firefighters came to the main door of the building. Then, she said, firefighters waited a long time before evacuating people.

"This shouldn't have happened," she said to Chief McKay in a confrontation outside city hall yesterday afternoon.

Firefighters have not pinpointed the cause of the fire, but they said the building's old construction allowed fire to spread unseen behind the walls, producing smoke but not visible flames. When the chief arrived around midnight, he could see only very light smoke, but by 12:15 a.m., there was intense heat and black smoke.

Firefighters on the third floor noticed, through thermal imaging cameras, that fire was burning in between the floors above and below them.

"At that point, we were in deep trouble," he said, and firefighters rushed everyone out of the building. A few minutes later, a fire official spotted a man in the third-floor window.

"We almost lost downtown tonight," said Bell, at the scene early yesterday. Bell had awoken to see flames from his bedroom window. Bell rushed to the scene and found both the apartment and the adjacent Temple Ahavat Achim synagogue ablaze. Firefighters said they were unable to save the temple's Torah.

Taylor had lived in the Middle Street apartment building for two decades, neighbors said, making a living from various odd jobs, including trimming the building's hedges and cleaning carpets. "He was a gentle soul, very industrious and helpful," said fellow tenant Edward Herman, who was one of the last people to see Taylor.

"You could see him flailing around like he was drowning," said Herman.

Red Cross staff worked through the day to ensure that displaced residents had places to stay. Some had gone to the homes of friends and relatives.

Capillo, who was alone in the nearest ladder truck, quickly recruited two police officers to help move the heavy extension ladder and, with Herman holding a flashlight, they set it up under Taylor's window.

Capillo said two other firefighters, including Nicastro, came to the scene to help them as well. As a result, he said he couldn't say whether it would have been quicker to have had the two additional crew mates. "If the police officers weren't there it would have made a difference," he said. "That ladder is just a bear to get out of the back of the truck."

Ultimately, McKay said, Nicastro came painfully close to rescuing Taylor before the rising smoke forced him to make an emergency exit. "It was as herculean an effort as I've seen in my 25 years as fire chief," he said.

All 27 people who lived in the building had been accounted for by midmorning yesterday, according to Police Lieutenant Joe Aiella. Fire officials have not officially confirmed that Taylor was the deceased as they waited through the day for the area to be cleared so that they could begin searching for his body.

"There's 22 families without a home," said Dan Gattineri, the property owner of the Lorraine Apartment complex. "There's nothing good to say about it."

Hobbs said he gave up his campaign to oust Bell after city officials found the money to reopen the two fire stations that had been closed, including the Bay View station, located a mile from where Clary died.

"We wanted the people in the city of Gloucester to wake up," Hobbs said.

"We felt like they did for a little bit, but after a while, people go back to sleep and think it's all right. But it's not all right."

Megan Woolhouse of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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