MERIDEN — Two cigarettes smoked at around midnight Wednesday on a second-floor balcony are to blame for a fire that ripped through the Merritt Station apartment complex early Thursday morning.
The cigarettes were placed in a plastic bucket and were not fully extinguished, Fire Marshal Steve Trella said Thursday.
The bucket began smoldering, and by 3 a.m. it had ignited a nearby plastic table and chairs.
“To a firefighter, plastic is solid gasoline,” Trella said.
Next-door neighbor Divyesh Patel and his wife, Susma, saw the flames and smelled smoke. Then they heard a loud boom and what sounded like broken glass.
“I saw the big flame,” Patel said. “The fire was too fast. I didn’t grab anything. I was knocking on doors and hit all the buzzers.”
The blaze shot straight up into the attic where it raced from one end of the building to the other, Trella said.
“Once it got into the attic, it pretty much ran the building,” Trella said.
Remarkably, no one was injured and management believes it recovered all the pets. Forty tenants in 25 units were displaced by the fire and the owner of the complex, formerly known as Meetinghouse Village, was arranging for alternate housing.
Akram Hossain, who also lives on the second floor of building 73, was awakened from a deep sleep by the fire alarm, he said. He opened the door and saw people talking outside.
“I was like ‘what’s going on?’” Hossain said. “I’m running around like crazy to get out.”
Hossain lives with his wife and four children, ages 5 to 12. His 11-year-old daughter suffers from seizures and began trembling as he tried to wake her. He had to pick her up and hold her while grabbing the 5-year-old. He made it out the door and to the stairs, when a neighbor stepped in to give him a hand down the stairs.
“It’s gone, where I live,” Hossain said. “I tried to get the medicine. I don’t know where I’m going to go, probably a friend’s house.”
By 3:30 a.m., firefighters were on their way to building 73. The alarm in building 72 next door had also gone off and those neighbors were escaping as the fire leaped onto their rooftop. Firefighters from Berlin, Wallingford, South Meriden and Middletown assisted in fighting the blaze while Cheshire and Southington departments responded to calls within the city. Firefighters used four ladder trucks and set up master streams and ground lines to battle the blaze and prevent it from causing more damage to building 72. The fire was out in less than three hours.
“The building (73) is a total loss,” said Ron Simoncini, spokesman for the Solomon Organization, owner of Merritt Station LLC. “Even though the first floor had no burn damage, the compromise to the building and water damage just wipes you out.”
Meriden police helped evacuate the buildings and sleepy, cold tenants huddled outside before going to the nearby leasing office.
“There were flames outside the window,” said Rich Parana who woke up to the smell of smoke in building 73 at 3:30 a.m. “We pulled both alarms on the first floor and on the second floor. I’m exhausted. I haven’t slept all night.”
At 7 a.m. the American Red Cross arrived and the Merritt Station’s community building was converted into a shelter and intake center, where displaced residents of both buildings found food, hot coffee and gift cards for essentials, such as shoes and coats that might have been left behind. Some people were also able to get prescription vouchers if they couldn’t return to their units for prescription medicines.
Electricity was cut to all 296 units in the complex and Connecticut Light & Power worked to isolate and restore power to the non-affected buildings.
The fire destroyed 24 units or all of building 73 and damaged one unit in building 72, said Simoncini. The company expects to have the unit in building 72 restored and repaired in a few weeks.
Tenants in the 24 units in building 73 will be given the option of moving into one of several vacant units at Merritt Station. If the tenant cannot relocate on site because there might not be enough two bedroom units, the management company will help them find an apartment off site, Simoncini. There is no timetable on replacing building 72, but the company expects to rebuild similar apartments on an expedited basis, according to a statement.
All displaced tenants will be put in hotels until a unit is ready, he said. The company also has trucks coming from New Jersey today with food, cribs, couches and other furniture for the tenants who lost everything.
“Obviously, tomorrow they won’t be where they were, but we’re doing our best,” Simoncini said.
“We are relieved that all of the residents and emergency response personal came through this with no injuries, which is the primary concern,” said Marshall Rosen, managing director of the Solomon Organization in a statement. “The Red Cross and the Meriden Fire and Police Departments were nothing less than spectacular in their handling of the fire and its impacts, and we have a profound appreciation for their dedication and professionalism.”
No charges have been filed and the fire was classified as non-intentional, Trella said.