4 Die, At Least 12 Injured in Mass. Building Fire

Updated: 06-15-2006 12:59:50 PM

Associated Press Writer

A deadly fire that broke out at a community center before a Portuguese religious feast started when candles ignited crepe paper decorations in the heavily adorned hall, fire officials confirmed Thursday.

Four people were killed and at least 12 were injured Wednesday evening in this working class coastal city, which has an active and deep-rooted Portuguese community, authorities said.

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

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

Thirty people were in the three-story building when the fire broke out. Members of the Our Lady of Lights Society were holding a prayer service in preparation for the upcoming weekend's festival. The building has apartments on the two floors above the community hall.

Fire Chief David Thiboutot said there was a delay in calling for help as people inside the hall tried to extinguish the flames themselves. Others were trying to go back into the building as firefighters arrived to find injured people outside and reports of people trapped, he said. There were no sprinklers.

Firefighters found the four dead on the first floor. They all appeared to be middle-aged adults or older, Walsh said, although he cautioned that they had not yet been positively identified.

At least 10 community members and two firefighters were taken to hospitals with burns. The firefighters were treated and released. Three people suffered critical injuries, said Deputy Fire Chief William Silvia. Several others remained hospitalized.

The names of the dead and injured were not released.

Nelson Raposo, 31, who lives in a second-floor apartment, said he 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 conduct a room-by-room search.

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

Neighbor David Martin, 31, said he saw a man run out of the building with his shirt on fire. The man screamed that his wife was trapped inside, and he tried to run back into the building before he was stopped by firefighters, Martin said.

Fall River is 20 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Providence, Rhode Island. Almost half of its 92,000 residents claim Portuguese heritage, according to the 2000 Census.