WALTHAM — The improper disposal of smoking materials in a Waltham rooming house is being blamed for a fire early Friday that took a man’s life.
Nine residents were driven out by the fire, which broke out around 3 a.m. Others might have perished, authorities and residents said, if not for the actions of a tow-truck driver who saw smoke, called 911, then broke down the door of the Crescent Street house.
“He started on the first floor. He said, “Get out! The house is on fire!’ ” said George Clarke, a retired nurse’s aide who lives on the second floor of the building.
“He got to the second floor, and he said, ‘Anybody living on the third floor?’ We were like, yes. He ran up to the third floor. He only made it halfway because of the smoke,” Clarke said.
The third floor is where fire officials say the blaze started, in a bedroom, where the victim’s body was found next to a bed, said Waltham Deputy Fire Chief Tom MacInnis.
The name of the victim was not released. He is the 18th person to die in a fire this year in Massachusetts, said Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Fire Services.
The smoke alarm in the victim’s room had been dismantled, but hard-wired smoke alarms in common hallways were working and probably prevented more casualties, officials said.
MacInnis said firefighters extinguished the blaze quickly. While searching the third floor, rescuers found a man in another bedroom who was asleep in his bed and did not know about the fire, he said.
“The guys went in, woke him up, and took him out,” MacInnis said.
The 2½-story building has 12 units, 11 of which were occupied by a total of 12 people, MacInnis said. The American Red Cross is assisting nine residents, a representative said.
The victim was described by a friend as a good-hearted man who struggled to overcome personal problems.
“You always had a warm spot in your heart for him,” said Luciano Velella, 59, of Waltham. “He was a good person. A lot of people didn’t see that. I saw that. You know, I’m going to miss him.”
Velella said he grew up in the same neighborhood as the victim and his brother and used to take them on bicycle rides to Prospect Hill when they were children.
He also recalled the victim sneaking into his family’s garden to take tomatoes and vegetables.
“He used to raid my mother’s garden. My mother used to chase him out with a broomstick,” Velella said.
Clarke recalled speaking to the victim in the yard around 5:30 p.m. on Thursday.
“He asked for a light for his cigarette. I said, ‘I don’t smoke.’ I said, ‘I quit.’ He said, ‘OK. Good for you,’ ” Clarke said. “He went in the house. Next I seen him they were taking him out in a bag at about 8:30 this morning. It’s sad.”
Clarke and his neighbors said they are grateful to the tow-truck driver, whom they only know as Greg, the name that was written on his jacket. The driver works at Waltham Auto Tow, which is also on Crescent Street. He didn’t return messages seeking comment.
“We all shook his hand before he left,” Clarke said. “I guess there was an angel on our shoulders.