FITCHBURG — When he first smelled the smoke, Josue Gonzalez thought something in his apartment had caught fire. Smoke that strong had to be coming from somewhere close.
The 18-year-old ran through the house, warning his family and searching for the source. It was not until he went outside late Sunday night, where a thick black smoke had enveloped the entire street, that he saw the raging fire, a few houses down, that would leave two people dead.
He ran down East Street and saw a man he knew screaming for help. The man had helped his father get out of the house, and others had escaped through first-floor windows. But the two people living on the second floor were trapped.
Desperate, the man charged onto the front porch, intent on rescue. But the flames were too intense, and he and Gonzalez fell back to the street.
“It was too hot,” Gonzalez recalled Monday, as he watched firefighters douse the home’s smoldering remains. “The door started melting, and the whole porch went up in flames.”
Even then, the man wanted to rush inside. But Gonzalez held him back and told him they had to wait.
“I knew we couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I wish we could.”
Firefighters quickly arrived and were able to pull the two people from the home, but neither survived.
“There was some dangerous conditions, and we were able to get the people out,” said Fire Chief Kevin D. Roy. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t in time.”
Authorities identified the victims as Lisa Englehart, 39, and Christopher Brinkley, 22. Frank Huckins Sr., 65, was in intensive care Monday in critical condition.
Early Monday afternoon, a young couple who had escaped the fire returned to their home. A fire official told them that Huckins was in critical condition and the couple rushed off to the hospital.
Firefighters arrived at the home around 11:30 p.m. Sunday to find flames roaring through the first floor and heavy smoke shrouding the street.
Told there were people inside, firefighters pushed into the building and found two adults, in separate rooms, on the second floor. Firefighters carried one victim out the front stairs, and the second was taken down a ladder to waiting ambulances.
Both were rushed to Leominster Hospital, where they were pronounced dead, authorities said.
“It was a really intense fire,”that was fueled by piles of clothing and the home’s insulation, Roy said.
Gretchen Letteney, who lives down the street from the fire, said she awoke to screams and went outside to see smoke pouring from her neighbors’ home. She watched as firefighters rushed into the blaze in hopes of finding survivors.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Letteney said Brinkley was often seen walking his puppy, and always said hi to people on the street.
Neighbors said relatives screamed in horror as the victims were brought out of the house on stretchers.
Witnesses said rescuers attempted to revive Englehart outside the home, but that Brinkley had already died.
“You could tell he wasn’t with us anymore,” said Mark Romano, a neighbor. “The firefighters hung their heads.”
Six other residents escaped the fire without injury, authorities said.
Red Cross volunteers assisted four residents who were displaced by the fire and put up two in a hotel.
The state fire marshal’s office and local officials are investigating the fire, but said it does not appear to be suspicious. An adjacent home was also damaged.
The fire came less than a week after two firefighters died battling a wind-fed fire in a Boston apartment building.
In Fitchburg, firefighters faced bursts of flames and icy conditions around the home, but none required hospitalization, Roy said.
The deaths were the first fire-related casualties in Fitchburg since 2011, when two people died in car fires, officials said.
This year, house fires in Massachusetts have claimed the lives of 15 residents, the state fire marshal’s office said.