Officials: Northfield fire caused by electrical outlet

By JULIAN MENDOZA

Staff Writer

Published: 02-21-2023 6:24 PM

NORTHFIELD — The fire that displaced residents of a three-story apartment building at 5 Pine St. last week was started by an electrical outlet, the State Fire Marshal’s Office confirmed Tuesday.

The fire, which left the building uninhabitable and displaced nine people between three floors, began in the front room of the third floor, Fire Chief Floyd “Skip” Dunnell III determined. Dunnell said the State Fire Marshal’s Office confirmed his suspicions that it originated at an electrical outlet between a closet and the bedroom wall. What was plugged into the outlet when the fire started, or anything else that may have contributed to starting the blaze, remains under investigation.

“The issue with an electrical fire is if you either have a bad connection or a bad plug, it can cause heat and will not actually trip a breaker until it already shorts itself out,” Dunnell explained. “That can occur sometimes not until the fire has already started.”

According to a report filed by responding Northfield Police Officer Benjamin Welcome, a call came over the emergency scanner at around 8:58 p.m. on Friday “regarding a structure fire with flames showing.” Welcome, who was on patrol near Northfield Elementary School, responded immediately, notifying dispatchers that he was en route.

“He responded before he was even dispatched because he heard it and was able to cut off some valuable time,” Police Chief Jon Hall said.

Tristan McKenna, a Montague resident, is credited as the first person to enter the apartment building in an effort to assist anyone who may have been trapped inside.

“I was driving home from work a little before 9 and I saw the flames coming out of the third-floor roof and windows,” McKenna recalled. “I immediately hit the brakes and drove up Pine Street. I immediately called 911, got out of my van and started banging on windows and doors.”

Upon entry, McKenna said he first went up to the third floor, which he described as being “fully engulfed” with flames. He found the doorknob to be extremely hot and figured that any effort to rescue anyone who might be trapped inside would be futile.

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He then descended to the second floor, where he banged on windows and doors in an effort to alert the apartment’s tenants. The tenants, two people, had been alerted to the fire by their smoke alarms and were able to escape unassisted, Dunnell later learned.

Lastly, McKenna made his way back to the first floor and once again began banging on windows and doors.

“Finally, an older gentleman came out and I told him he had to get out of the house because it was on fire and he didn’t believe me,” McKenna recalled. “Then he saw the smoke and the flames.”

McKenna said the man, later identified as 83 years old in the incident report, “was a little panicked” when he realized the building was on fire.

“He told me that his wife was on hospice and he couldn’t leave her or the house,” McKenna recounted. “Soon after, the patrolman came in and we decided that we needed to get her out of the house.”

“It was at this point that we removed [the woman] from the building using her bed sheet and blankets, carrying her to the north side of Pine Street directly across from the building involved,” Welcome wrote in his incident report, noting that she was 88 years old and “bedridden.”

Welcome reported that the man remained in the building even after his wife had been rescued. According to McKenna, the man said he was looking for his cat, to which McKenna responded that the Fire Department would search for it. The man then exited the building.

“Within minutes, Fire and EMS showed up,” McKenna said.

Both tenants were evaluated by emergency medical technicians, according to Welcome’s report.

“I was glad that everyone got out,” McKenna said. “Buildings can be replaced. Lives can’t be replaced.”

Greenfield residents Diana Nunez and her boyfriend, Derrick Adams, who were driving past the apartment on their way home from New Hampshire and saw the fire coming from a window, also knocked on doors to alert residents of surrounding buildings to ensure they got out safely in case the fire spread.

“The wind was blowing and no one had any clue what was going on,” Nunez recounted previously.

Five people, none of whom were home at the time of the fire, were displaced from the third-floor apartment: Jessica Snow, Larry Welcome and their three children aged 9, 7 and 4, according to Cheryl Snow, the mother of Jessica Snow and organizer of a fundraiser at gofundme.com/f/structure-firetotal-loss.

Dunnell said tenants on all three floors secured temporary housing with friends and family, and are being assisted by the American Red Cross.

Hall celebrated Welcome, who is a part-time officer, for how he “took the extra effort” to respond on his own accord and run into the burning building without any firefighting gear. He noted that in addition to his part-time service, Welcome works a full-time job and cares for a family.

“He put his own life on the line for somebody else,” McKenna added. “He’s not a fireman. He could’ve just stood outside and waited.”

Hall also praised McKenna for being a “good Samaritan.” McKenna said his motivation to help was “a mentality thing” connected to his role as a military hospital corpsman in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

“There’s three types of people in life,” McKenna said. “There’s people who run toward chaos, and then there’s people who run away from chaos, and then you get the third type that stand there with their phones and take videos and they’re the first to complain about everything.”

Despite having surpassed her initial $5,000 fundraising goal, Snow continues to accept donations at gofundme.com/f/structure-firetotal-loss. Northfield’s Loaves & Fishes volunteer organization is also accepting donations for the Snow family in the form of gift cards for food, gas and other necessities. Checks can be written to Loaves & Fishes and sent to Cathy Hawkins-Harrison at 65 Ashuelot Road, Northfield, MA 01360.

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.

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