LOWELL -- If he hadn’t installed the fan in his bedroom window, Sambath Sar might not have smelled the smoke until it was too late. He woke up just before 4 a.m. Thursday coughing, his third-floor room filled with thick, white, choking clouds. Flames burning the building flickered in the window.
Sar, 52, roused his 77-year-old godmother and 22-year old nephew and burst out into the hallway, shirtless, banging on neighbors’ doors.
“The house is going to burn down! Run!” he screamed. Door to door, on the third floor and then the second. He wasn’t scared, he said: he had time.
Others did not. They climbed, or they jumped, or they died.
Vebol Yut heard Sar’s pounding over his music in the second-floor apartment of a friend he was visiting. He took off running with just the clothes on his back. The stairway was so hot it felt like it was steaming, and the glow of the flames spilled in through the stairway window as he made his way down.
Somewhere in the inferno, Yut heard the pop-pop-pop of fireworks exploding.
Outside, he started filming. Shaky video captured on his phone shows bright flames shooting from the roof of the three-story building, and a fire truck ladder extending toward a window. Against the black night, someone descended. A mother, said Yut, and her children. Lucky.
Lowell police radio communications recorded by radioreference.com began just before 4 a.m., with an officer calmly reporting “a fire, the old Guilbeault’s Package Store, people hanging out the windows.” Seconds later, the officer asks for a couple of cars. But in 2 minutes, police are shouting over the radio for reinforcements.
“Every fire department, we need everybody!”
“Send all the ladders!”
Inside, residents who had not made it out in the first wave found themselves trapped by flames in the hallway. Sar Soth, 43, was in her third-floor apartment with two young children, their mother and another man, when she heard a boom, saw the flames, woke everyone up and realized the front door was hot. When the man tried to open it, flames burned his face.
“I open a window, we are screaming!” Soth recounted, shaking and weeping. “We couldn’t get out... We almost died in there.”
Soth said they watched the roof cave in. By the time firefighters reached them, the family could not see because of the smoke. At the bottom of the ladder, Soth fell, dizzy and unable to breathe.
Residents watching from the ground were horrified as flames engulfed their building. Khamsan Ou, safe outside with his girlfriend and their four children, watched shadows fall from the windows. He knew instantly that the shadows were people.
Inside the third-floor apartment where the fireworks exploded, something terrible was happening. Nine people lived there, according to family members: Torn Sak, his longtime partner Ellen Vuong, their five children, aged 7 to 14, Sak’s father, and another roommate.
A neighbor, Vann Ing, 52, heard the grandfather screaming as she fled: “Why don’t you get out? Why don’t you get out?”
But, said Ing through an interpreter, Sak ran back into the apartment. Into the flames. Toward his children.
“The kids’ room was locked,” she said. “Somehow, [Sak] tried to kick the door down, and the fire just went too flammable. And there was a lot of smoke.”
As Ing escaped, only Sak’s father and two of his sons joined her.
On the opposite side of the third floor, Chin Bun, 41, and his girlfriend Tina Christakos woke up to someone kicking their door. Bun shouted to his older roommate to warn him about the fire, then dashed down the stairs. But by the time he made it outside, he realized he was alone.
Another roommate, Vaen Phoeun, 54, said he saw Christakos in the living room before he ran.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with her. When she came in the living room, she don’t come with me,” said Phoeun.
Outside, Bun circled the building looking for his girlfriend, hoping they had just gotten separated. But she was nowhere. She must have stayed, he said, to help the roommate or to gather the couple’s Chihuahuas.
“The fire went off too quickly,” he said. “Just like lighting up a match.”
He tried to run back inside, but firefighters would not let him pass.
“The fire was too intense,” he said.
Phoeun said the roommate never made it out either.
As the sun rose and the news spread, frantic family and friends began arriving at the apartment building on Branch Street to wait for news.
“I went to the scene hoping that everybody made it out,” said Thearan Sak, 20, Torn’s brother. “But when I pulled up on the Cambodian store lot, I only saw two of my nephews. My brother had five kids. That was… that was pretty much it.”