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Blast, fire tied to a suicide attempt

Suspect, 10 residents hurt in Roxbury blaze

“I was also thinking about saving my grandson,’’ said Judith Lamb. Beverly Berry was also a resident. “I was also thinking about saving my grandson,’’ said Judith Lamb. Beverly Berry was also a resident. (DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF)
By Peter Schworm and Meghan Irons
Globe Staff / October 18, 2011

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A Medford man accused of setting off an overnight explosion that tore through a Roxbury apartment complex and ignited one of the most destructive fires in recent city history was trying to kill himself, authorities said yesterday.

As firefighters battled the six-alarm blaze that injured 10 residents and displaced more than 50, Mohamed Abdul Jabar appeared at Boston Medical Center seeking treatment of third-degree burns, police said. He allegedly told caregivers he “blew up’’ a house.

The 28-year-old, who remained in intensive care yesterday, will be charged with arson and attempted murder in the apparent gas explosion, police said. He is expected to recover from burns to his arms, hands, and face.

Investigators are exploring the possibility that Jabar accessed a gas line inside a first-floor apartment where he was staying with relatives and lit a match. Authorities said the blaze, which took 11 hours to subdue, was consistent with a natural gas fire.

The early-morning fire raced through some 24 apartments in the three-story development, sending dozens of residents fleeing into the street. Others, trapped by flames and smoke, ran in terror to their windows and screamed for their lives.

With a gaping hole blown in the side of a building, thick smoke billowing, and bricks and charred belongings strewn across a large area, firefighters pulled people from the upper floors, snatching them from ledges to safety. In one heart-stopping scene, a grandmother dropped her 6-year-old grandson from the third floor into the arms of a firefighter on the ground.

“Thank God I caught him,’’ said Glenn McGillivray, one of the first firefighters on the scene. “I’ve never had to do that before, and I hope I never have to do it again.’’

A man who said he knows Jabar said the Somali native had recently appeared disheveled and deeply troubled.

“The last time I saw him he did not look good to me,’’ said Adrian Barbosa, who owns a corner store near the scene of the fire. “He told me he was not all right. He said he was having a lot of problems.’’

When Barbosa saw Jabar late last week, he asked him what was wrong. “Everything,’’ he said Jabar replied.

“Can’t get any job, no money, can’t do anything,’’ Barbosa said, recalling the conversation through tears. “But then he left, because a lot of people were coming into the store. I told him we would talk later.’’

Barbosa said he did not know much about Jabar, but said he appeared to be a decent man grappling with many setbacks. “I don’t think he hates people,’’ said Barbosa. “I don’t think he’s a bad guy. He just had problems.’’

Residents said they knew Jabar only to say hello and did not know the people he visited. Authorities did not say whether his relatives were home at the time of the fire.

The violent explosion shook the complex on Westminster Avenue shortly before 1 yesterday morning, and flames quickly engulfed the development. Alarms and screams pierced the night, and residents ran through dense smoke into the street.

“It was a tremendously smoky fire,’’ Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald said, adding that the blast blew out windows and caused the roof to cave in. “When the wind shifted, it was as bad as I’d ever seen,’’ MacDonald said.

Lieutenant Tom Blake and his fellow firefighters rescued four people pushed to the window by heat and smoke.

“They kept coming, one after another,’’ Blake said, pointing toward a smoky opening in the building. “I’ve been on 21 years, and I’ve never been to a fire with more rescues, ever.’’

Ten residents were treated for smoke inhalation. One firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion, and a second was treated for a cut to his forehead. McGillivray was treated and released with a back injury.

At least three sections of the U-shaped complex, each with six apartments, were destroyed, and others were badly damaged, MacDonald said. He said investigators have spoken briefly with the suspect, but plan to conduct more interviews when his health allows.

“He’s not going anywhere,’’ MacDonald said.

Residents who cannot return home will stay in a hotel for the next couple of nights, he said.

Like most, Beverly Berry was in bed when the blast thundered through the night.

She ran outside and saw smoke billowing from windows and moments later saw a fire truck speeding up the street. She rushed back inside to get her mother, 82, and quickly got her outside.

Berry was angry that a man seemingly bent on suicide would risk the lives of many others. “If you want to do something to yourself, you do it to yourself,’’ Berry said. “Don’t take other people with you. And that’s something he’s going to have to live with for the rest of his life.’’

For Orlando Reyes, 52, it was the screaming and footsteps that jolted him to action. When he and his stepsister opened the front door, thick smoke enveloped them.

Coughing heavily and barely able to see, they relied on memory to find the exit.

Shortly after he made it outside, the front wall collapsed, the bricks crashing into the street and sidewalk. Flames shot from the building, and Reyes and his stepsister fled across the street.

On the third floor, Judith Lamb was just dozing off when she heard the blast below, followed quickly by fire alarms and a chorus of screams. The word fire rang forth again and again.

She leaped from her bed and ran to the kitchen door, where she was met by a wall of smoke. She rushed back to wake up her daughter and her grandson, Xavier, 6.

Together, they tried to go downstairs, but were pushed back.

“I really couldn’t believe what was going on,’’ she recalled yesterday. “I started thinking that I was going to die in this fire, but I was also thinking about saving my grandson.’’

She opened the window as far as she could, and put one leg out the window, Xavier held tight on her lap. The heat from the flames was getting stronger.

Some firefighters below shouted up at her, telling her not to jump, that help was on the way. They told her she would have to drop Xavier. As the boy’s screams grew louder, she let go.

Below, McGillivray extended his arms like a cradle.

“I knew she wouldn’t be able to hold him until we got help,’’ he said.

But for a half hour, Lamb was stricken. She could not find her husband and daughter and feared they had perished in the blaze.

But they were safe, having escaped out a window on the other side of the building.

“I thank God for that, because I don’t know what I would have done,’’ she said, pausing several times to hold back tears.

Yesterday morning, Melonie Miller, 34, sat at the corner of Westminster Avenue, hoping to salvage what she could from her apartment. But she was not allowed back in.

“I just have to get some uniforms, so my kids can go school tomorrow,’’ she said. She started to cry, and a stranger wrapped her in her arms.

“We are here for you,’’ she said.

Brian Ballou, John R. Ellement, and John M. Guilfoil of the Globe staff, and Globe corresponent Matt Byrne contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete. Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.