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North End fire leaves woman badly burned, 13 homeless

Fire officials are investigating the cause of a blaze that started in a four-story brick building in the North End Tuesday night. One woman was was seriously burned.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Fire officials are investigating the cause of a blaze that started in a four-story brick building in the North End Tuesday night. One woman was was seriously burned.

Chris Marchal said he will never forget what he saw on a North End sidewalk late Tuesday night — a severely burned woman stumbling out of a burning building, her hair smoldering, her body covered with black soot, her clothes shredded.

“She was in pain, but more shock than anything,” Marchal, 19, said Wednesday morning, returning to the spot where he first saw the victim, in front of 26 Cooper St.

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“The only thing that even resembled someone was her eyes, her blue eyes,’’ he said. “She was Caucasian, but that was the only thing white about her, her eyes.”

The four-alarm fire, which broke out at about 11 p.m. Tuesday, caused $1 million in damage, gutting a four-story story brick building at 26 Cooper and causing smoke damage to 28 Cooper St. and 29 North Margin St., according to Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

MacDonald said 13 people were left homeless.

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He said the injured woman was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital and was in serious condition Wednesday night.

Marchal, who helped the woman reach paramedics, was among many local residents and business owners who banded together to aid the burn victim and the residents displaced by the fire.

Several people who arrived at the scene yelled to the building’s occupants after seeing thick smoke billow from the windows. They assisted two young women who jumped to safety from a first-story window. A cafe owner took in displaced tenants as nearly 100 firefighters battled the blaze throughout the night and early morning. And a woman gave a Suffolk University senior who had to suddenly evacuate her nearby apartment a pair of flip-flops after noticing the student walking around barefoot.

“You gotta do what you gotta do,’’ said Robert Spagnuolo, 57, who told his sister to pull a fire alarm box while he called 911. He stood in front of the flaming complex trying to warn residents by yelling, “Get out, fire!”

Two women appeared at a first-floor window, screaming, then climbed to the edge to prepare for the approximate 10-foot drop, he said. Spagnuolo helped catch them.

“It was just instinct,’’ he said.

Michael Allen, 23, of Boston, who was visiting a friend in the building next door, walked outside and saw the fire engulf the building’s top floors within minutes.

Allen said he also assisted the young women who jumped to safety.

“I was walking out to get a pizza when I heard screams,” he said. “We were trying to scream at people to get out.”

Most of the displaced occupants ended up at the Cafe Pompei, a restaurant on Hanover Street, where they met with officials from the American Red Cross to secure shelter.

“The EMS captain and Boston Fire asked us if they could use our tables, and we told them ‘of course,’ ” said Tony Pezzano, co-owner.

“We offered them pizza and coffee and water, whatever they needed. We stayed open until 4:30. The kids, they were shocked, bewildered, and in disbelief. Most of them had just started the school year, and then, all of a sudden, their apartments and belongings are destroyed. It was very surreal for them, you could tell.”

Christina Roulin, 21, was one of the residents who responded to the shouts to “get out.” She lives in an apartment at 28 Cooper St., next to the complex where the fire broke out. The two buildings are divided by a firewall.

She rushed outside, barefoot, but a neighbor came to her aid with a pair of pink flip-flops that happened to fit her perfectly. “They are nice,” Roulin said, lifting her right foot. “That woman was really nice.” Roulin said she will stay temporarily with a fellow Suffolk University student who lives nearby.

Roulin returned to her apartment Wednesday to retrieve her laptop computer.

“The firefighters made a good stop,” said MacDonald. The fire was confined to 26 Cooper St. as firefighters attacked it from both sides of the building.

The front stairway of the apartment building was incinerated and flames shot through the roof at the height of the fire, which took several hours to put out. MacDonald estimated it could be up to a year before residents can move back into the building.

Brian Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com

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