Fire in Connecticut Apartment Building Leaves 150 Homeless

A fast-moving fire swept through a large apartment complex in eastern Connecticut early Saturday, and authorities were looking for dozens of people who were unaccounted for.

No deaths had been confirmed, but Norwich Fire Chief Ken Scandariato said he couldn't rule out the possibility that some residents may not have escaped.

He said Saturday morning that 105 of the estimated 150 residents of the Peachtree Garden Apartments on Westledge Drive had been located. The American Red Cross said later in the day it was helping 114 residents of the complex.

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Scandariato said some people may have gone to stay with friends and relatives, but he added: "It's a question right now. It's in question."

The fire was reported at 1:30 a.m. at the complex, which had a common roof connecting 12 buildings that housed 120 units. Officials said all but about eight apartments were destroyed.

Two buildings were fully engulfed by flames by the time firefighters arrived and tenants were calling for help, Scandariato said. Officials said police officers and firefighters ran door to door alerting people and helping them get out.

The fire chief said the wreckage was still too hot by late morning to allow the use of arson dogs or cadaver dogs, and officials expected to be at the scene until at least Sunday afternoon.

Fire and police authorities had not provided an update as of early Saturday evening. They were treating the blaze as suspicious. The cause remained unclear.

Parts of buildings remained standing Saturday, and firefighters continued to pour water on smoldering sections.

Mayor Benjamin Lathrop said it was a major undertaking determining who was at the apartment complex at the time of the fire and where they were. Authorities were working with management of the complex and checking registrations of parked cars there.

"It will be a few days before we know who's missing," he said. "Let's just hope that everybody got out safe."

City Manager Alan Bergren said late in the day that he hadn't received any reports of people not making it out of the apartment complex.

"We are pretty much tracking down most of the residents," he said.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter at a nearby school.

Sue Rochester-Bolen of the local chapter of the Red Cross said her agency opened cases for 77 families, including 111 adults and three children, and handed out about $22,000 in aid.

She believed many people had not yet contacted the Red Cross, and she urged them to do so Saturday night or Sunday at the shelter at Uncas Elementary School. Few people were at the shelter late Saturday afternoon.

"This is by far and away the most devastating disaster we've had in southeastern Connecticut," Rochester-Bolen said. "These people have nothing left. They truly have nothing."

About 40 Red Cross volunteers were helping residents with temporary housing, food, clothing and any mental health support they needed.

City of Norwich social workers and staff from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services were also at the scene.

Fire alarms were working but the complex didn't have a sprinkler system because that wasn't required when it was built in 1976. The entire structure was engulfed in flames within minutes.

"It got ahead of us," Scandariato said. "It was just too much fire to mount an attack to stop it."

Mohammad Sundal, 43, was spending his first night in his one-bedroom apartment when he awoke to the smell of smoke. His living room was already on fire, he said.

"It was so intense, the fire," Sundal said. "If I stayed for two more minutes, trust me, it was going to burn me."

Tenant Beverly Creed and her son, Travis, 17, were awakened by a downstairs neighbor. The complex's courtyard was already on fire as they ran to safety.

"It was scary," she said. "I just grabbed my purse and pair of sandals to put on."

Another tenant, Carol Rice, said she heard an explosion. "Then I opened my glass sliding door and the flames were just flying everywhere," she said. She escaped wearing a bathrobe and slippers.

"Oh, my God. I'm a total wreck," she said, sobbing. "My pills, all my medications are burnt."

The local health district was helping people refill their prescriptions.

Investigators didn't know yet if the fire started inside or outside the complex. The Fire Department was working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the state fire marshal's office.

Norwich is about 40 miles east of Hartford.