Thursday, June 15, 2006

Tragedy at Prayer Service

A deadly fire that broke out at a Portuguese social club before a prayer service started when crepe paper decorations ignited as candles were lit in the heavily adorned hall, fire officials said Thursday.

Four people were killed and at least 12 were injured Wednesday night in this working class coastal city about 20 miles southeast of Providence, where almost half of the 92,000 residents claim Portuguese heritage.

"What makes this an incredible tragedy is these hardworking Fall River families were gathering to celebrate their lives, their culture, their spirit, their faith," Mayor Ed Lambert said at a news conference Thursday.

"It was horrible. I saw everything from my porch. It was horrendous," resident Anna Fernandes told NBC 10. "I've never seen anything like that before -- people screaming, trying to get their loved ones out. It was horrible."

Thirty people were on the ground floor of the three-story building when the fire broke out. The building has apartments on the two floors above the community hall.

Members of Our Lady of Light Society were gathering for a prayer service that customarily precedes an annual religious festival. Candles were being lit around a shrine to the Holy Ghost when the fire started. The society has a nearly 100-year history in Fall River.

Some society members tried to put out the flames with water, a fire extinguisher and by stomping on them, but the blaze grew too rapidly, state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said.

"They didn't have a chance," Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. said.

Michelle Pacheco, 24, was holding her 1 1/2-year-old niece on her lap when the fire started. She said a wave of heat hit her in the face, blistering her skin.

"It was a lot of fire," she said. "A lot of heat. The whole room was black. We had trouble breathing."

Pacheco grabbed her niece and ran for a door, but it was stuck. Eventually, someone kicked it down, and people rushed out, she said.

"I thought we were all going to die," said Pacheco, who was hospitalized overnight with burns. Her niece, Autumn Silvio, was in good condition Thursday at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence.

Fire Chief David Thiboutot said firefighters arrived to find injured people outside and reports of people trapped. There were no sprinklers.

Firefighters found four women dead on the first floor. A dozen people were injured, including two firefighters who were treated and released. It's not immediately known how many others remain hospitalized.

Nelson Raposo, 31, lives in a second-floor apartment and felt an explosion rattle his floor at about 6:45 p.m.

"We just heard the big bang and felt the pressure," said Raposo, who was at home with his girlfriend and three young children. "I opened the front door but all I saw was smoke."

As the smoke rose in the hallway, Raposo led his family out a window and onto the roof. The family had to climb down through a tent that had been set up in the back parking lot for the festival.

A small boy who lived on the third floor ran through Raposo's apartment and followed the family outside.

The damage was not as heavy on the second and third floors, where firefighters used flashlights to search room by room.

The first floor, however, was completely gutted by fire, with windows blown out and the walls charred black.

In the wake of the fire, a special Mass has been scheduled for Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Espirito Santo Church in Fall River. A vigil for the victims is scheduled for Tuesday, June 20.

I know all four of those who died in the fire. Please remember them, their families and all those injured in your prayers.

1 comment:

Brian Michael Page said...

I saw that on channel 12 last night. TRAGIC!