By Alan Burke
---- — SALEM — An early-morning fire on Saturday saw two Salem police officers rush into a 60 Perkins St. building, which was belching smoke and flames, to usher residents out.
Deputy Chief Brian Harrington of the Salem Fire Department is blaming the two-alarm blaze on a lighted candle, saying that a cultural practice among Central American immigrants has led to more than half a dozen such fires over the past several years.
Police Sgt. David Tucker and Patrolman William Riley arrived to see heavy smoke and flames coming from the second-floor front and rear of the structure. They entered the building from the rear but were restricted in reaching some parts of it due to the heavy smoke. Some residents had already fled.
“But,we got a family out of the second floor that didn’t seem to know about the fire,” Tucker said. The family included three children and at least one adult.
Tucker said there was little time to wait upon arriving at the scene. “We had everyone out within the first five minutes,” he said.
“In some cases, we won’t go in without mask,” he said. “We didn’t go into the burning side of the unit.”
The building includes a firewall separating the two sides, Harrington said.
“When I pulled up, a lot of people were running across the street,” he said.
While the building was empty, firefighters had a tough job dealing with a blaze fierce enough to explode a bay window. Malfunctioning equipment, including a faulty pump, contributed to the difficulties, Harrington said.
“We had companies advancing into the building,” he said. “And I ordered everybody out.” Without water, “their lives were in jeopardy.”
At the same time, flames were reaching far enough that a nearby building, mere inches away, seemed to be threatened. The equipment was soon activated, and the firefighters went back in.
“The heavy fire was knocked down in 10 minutes,” Harrington said. “The fire was out completely within an hour.” There were no injuries to anyone.
With 33 years in the department, Harrington said he’s seen this type of blaze before.
“They have these little shrines where they burn candles at night. ... They usually set them up in the bedrooms. They do it every night,” he said. On a warm night with the breeze blowing, the drapes might come into contact with the flame, he said.
“This is probably the third or fourth major fire I’ve seen started this way,” he added.
Harrington estimated that the building suffered up to $100,000 in damage, although it’s likely it will be saved.
“The right side will have to be rebuilt,” he said.
Harrington worries, however, that in the building, there was a prematurely born infant with lung problems just released from the hospital.
“If the child had been above the fire (instead of on a lower floor), there might have been just enough smoke inhalation to compromise the lungs,” he said.
He praised the work of Engine Company 1 and 5 in “aggressively attacking” the blaze. Assistance was obtained from the Beverly, Marblehead and Lynn fire departments. Salem has been using a ladder truck borrowed from Danvers as theirs is under repair.
Staff writer Alan Burke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.