Fire investigators were expected to return to the scene of the city’s biggest fire in more than a decade, as officials met to plan relief efforts for the approximately 150 people left homeless.
The massive seven-alarm blaze that started in an empty downtown nightclub quickly spread through 16 buildings in pre-dawn hours, destroying homes and businesses and forcing residents to flee in their pajamas into bitter cold. Only one minor injury was reported.
Mayor Michael J. Sullivan planned to meet with agencies working to find temporary shelter and other resources for those displaced, at least 50 of whom spent the night in a Red Cross shelter.
Also, the Lawrence City Council was scheduled to meet to discuss the mayor’s call to raise property taxes and water bills to help cover a projected shortfall of up to $7 million in the city budget. Without the extra money, Sullivan warned that up to 20 firefighters would be laid off and two fire stations closed.
State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said the fire started in the nightclub, which was being renovated. The club had no walls, and that “gave the fire an opportunity to take hold very quickly,” he said.
The fire marshal called the blaze one of the largest in terms of property loss in Massachusetts in recent history. He said a task force including city, state and federal officials would begin an investigation to determine if the fire was set.
The blaze was the largest in the city since one that destroyed the Malden Mills complex in 1995.
Freezing winds quickly pushed the blaze through the block, which included early 1900s triple-decker wood frames, a hair salon and three buildings being rehabilitated by Habitat for Humanity. Firefighters were hampered by wind chills that dropped to 2 below zero, freezing the water used to fight the blaze and covering buildings and streets in ice.
Zulma Borgos, 49, said she was awakened by calls of “Fire! Fire!” from her boyfriend, Elias Riverra. Borgos said when she looked out the window, “I couldn’t believe what I saw.”
“It was a ball of fire,” said Riverra, 21. He didn’t even have time to grab a pair of socks before waking Borgos’ three girls in the apartment and running.
The girls, ages 5 to 12, were wrapped in blankets when they arrived at a shelter the Red Cross set up in a local school. Other people arrived in bathrobes and slippers.
Gov. Deval Patrick toured the site and met with displaced families on Monday and said work remained “to close in on what the cause of the fire is and most especially to help the families get back on their feet.”
“But one step at a time,” he said.
The nightclub owner, Geraldo Torres, 45, of Methuen, said the last time he was in the building was about 7 p.m. Saturday. He said he had no idea how a fire started because he turned off the power whenever he left.
“There’s no way the fire can start there,” he said.
Torres said he bought the nightclub for about $250,000 intending to open a restaurant and bar with an Italian or Mexican theme.
Renovations began about two months ago and he put $300,000 into the building.
“I don’t have any insurance. I lost everything,” he said.
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