The eight-alarm fire that tore through three East Boston multifamily houses and displaced more than 30 people Wednesday night probably started in the engine of a Toyota Highlander parked between two of the homes, fire officials say.
“The engine is pretty much melted away; it’s fried,” said Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald. “[The fire] went out the side of the car and attached itself to the house.”
Standing near the charred remains of the homes Thursday, East Boston resident Phil Rollins said he was still stunned by what he had seen the night before.
“I saw a ton of flames going into the sky, a lot of smoke, a lot of people,” Rollins said. “Firefighters and cops were everywhere. It was nuts. It was a bad fire.’’
Rollins, who lives on nearby Monmouth Street, said flames shot 15 feet out of the roof of one of the buildings. “I didn’t think they were going to put it out,’’ he said.
Fire officials said the fire started about 7:23 p.m. Wednesday in the silver sport utility vehicle parked in the narrow driveway between 85 and 89 Lexington St. But Candida Gomes, who owns both the car and 89 Lexington St., questioned that conclusion as she waited to get back inside her charred home.
“The fire started in the other house,” she said. “When I came out, the fire was coming out of the basement. There was big flames out of the basement toward my car. . . . That blew up, and the fire caught on my car, and my car blew up, too.’’
But MacDonald said that pictures taken before fire trucks arrived showed fire in the driveway before the homes and that investigators who had studied the scene and burn patterns were confident the fire started in the car. The flames, he said, crawled up the outside wall of 85 Lexington St. and simultaneously jumped into a basement window, scorching the building from the inside.
Flames from the driver’s side of the SUV ignited the exterior of Gomes’s home, too, said MacDonald.
As firefighters scrambled to get water to their colleagues during the fiercest part of the blaze, they ran into a barrier: Someone had parked a BMW coupe in front of the hydrant near the blaze.
The firefighters punched out the passenger-side and driver-side windows and ran a hose through them, from the hydrant to an engine waiting to pump water to the firefighters directly engaged in controlling the fire.
“The general reaction is that some people find humor in it,’’ MacDonald said. “But it’s really a serious situation. That water supply is the lifeblood of the engine company. The engine carries 750 gallons, and that could be gone in just two minutes. With that number of alarms, every hydrant is important.’’
Even after feeding the hose through the windows, said MacDonald, firefighters realized that the position of the car was causing the hose to kink. So a small platoon of firefighters did a “lift and slide,” picking up the car and moving it about a foot away from where the driver had originally parked it.
Firefighters do not go out of their way to damage private property, McDonald said, and they rarely encounter someone parked in front of a hydrant at a fire scene. But the ultimate goal is to protect people’s lives, and for that they need water.
Boston police said an officer ticketed the vehicle last night. The fine for such a violation is $100.
On Thursday morning, the car was no longer parked next to the hydrant.
The fire caused an estimated $750,000 in damage, said MacDonald.
According to the American Red Cross, seven families, totaling 33 people, were displaced. The city has opened a shelter at the East Boston Community Center, where efforts are underway to provide emergency firstname.lastname@example.org. John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.