LOWELL — The tone, the first alarm, came in from a cop named Borden Zwicker on routine patrol, just before 4 a.m., and the firefighters from Engine 2 and Ladder 2 ran instinctively to the pole on the second floor of the Branch Street firehouse. They followed each other down, wordlessly, like paratroopers jumping out of a plane.
The engines were roaring, the red lights flashing, and even before the doors to the old firehouse were opened, Lowell Fire Captain Brett Dowling realized that someone was outside, pounding on those same doors.
He wore only underwear and a look of sheer terror.
“My family’s trapped!” he screamed at Brett Dowling when the doors opened. “My kids!”
Tom Brady could have thrown a football from the firehouse and almost hit the burning apartment building just up Branch, on the corner of Queen Street. That’s how close it is.
“We could see the flames as soon as we pulled onto the street,” Dowling said. “We were still pulling our gear on while we were going down the street.”
Even before Engine 2 drove that 100 or so yards, Dowling struck a second alarm. He knew they needed more ladders, more engines, more firefighters, more everything.
Dowling and Firefighters Dave McNeil and Marc Poirier decided to pull Engine 2 down Queen Street, because the back porches of the three-story building were fully engulfed, and they needed to get water from a 2½-inch hose on them ASAP.
But as soon as they rounded the corner, they screeched to a halt: A man was lying in the middle of the street, writhing in pain.
“He had just jumped from one of the windows,” Dowling said.
The man, one of his legs or ankles seemingly broken, dragged himself with great effort out of the path of the hulking engine.
When Dowling jumped down from the engine, he saw another man, hanging on the outside of the building from a second-floor window, screaming for help. Flames and smoke were washing over the guy. Fireworks in the building seemed to have been ignited by the flames and were popping and bursting all over the place, making a hellish scene even more surreal.
“Hold on!” Dowling yelled up to the guy. “We’re gonna get you down!”
At that same moment, Ladder 2 was directly in front of the burning building. Firefighter Mike Maguire swung the aerial tower to the third floor and landed it perfectly, like a dart, right at the window in the right corner where a family of five was trapped.
Firefighter Ryan Carroll, nine years on the job, ran up the 35-foot ladder, and when he got in front of the window he felt a lump hit him in the chest. It was a little girl.
“She jumped out of the window, right onto me,” Carroll said. “With the smoke, I couldn’t see anything. She just landed on me, and I grabbed hold. She might have been 5 or 6. I peeled her off and put her right behind me and said, ‘Don’t move!’ I reached in the window and grabbed a little boy. He was probably about 3. I put him in back of me, too, but I was worried about him falling through the rungs because he was so small. I told his sister to bring him down, and she did. She was great. She was awesome.”
Carroll reached into the black again and pulled out another girl, maybe 10 years old. He told her to climb down because he had to get her parents.
“The father was really overcome by smoke,” Carroll said. “The mother sort of leaned on me, and I got them down.”
As Carroll was saving that family, his lieutenant, Mary Stelmokas, grabbed a 24-foot ladder from Ladder 2 and ran around the corner with it. She put it up against the building and with the help of a Lowell police officer got the man who was hanging from the second-floor window down.
Within minutes, two of the deputy fire chiefs on the scene, Bob Flynn and Bob Destrempe, struck a third alarm. Every piece of apparatus in Lowell was either on scene or en route. Engines and ladders from surrounding towns were on the way, too.
A bunch of Lowell cops whose last names reflect the rich ethnic mix of this old mill city — Bouvier, Varey, Paradise, Lumenello, Panagiotakas — were racing around the building, saving people, shepherding victims away, helping their brother and sister firefighters.
Ryan Carroll, meanwhile, was racing up the aerial ladder again, this time to get to another family of five, trapped in the rear third-floor apartment on the Queen Street side of the building.
He didn’t know it at the time, but Carroll was trying to save Torn Sak; Torn’s longtime partner, Ellen Vuong; and three of their children, 12-year-old Anthony Sak, 9-year-old Ryan Sak, and 7-year-old Sayuri Sak.
To make matters worse, when Carroll was saving the other family, one of them inadvertently hit the purge control on his air tank. As Carroll raced to save the Sak family, the oxygen was hissing out of his tank. His mask was vibrating; he was out of air. He had to go into the thick black smoke without a mask.
“It was bad,” he said. “The smoke was so thick. I was yelling in the window, but I never heard anyone answer back. I couldn’t see anyone.”
That’s because the Sak family was probably already dead, their bodies covered by the debris from the roof that had collapsed on top of them.
Dowling, McNeil, and Poirier had managed to knock down the fire on the back porches and were trying to bring some lines into the building.
“The fire stopped us on the second-floor landing,” Dowling said. “It was a wall of fire.”
The heavy lifting, the life-saving, was over in minutes. The harder stuff, dealing with the aftermath, the dead, would go on much longer.
About nine hours after they did everything in their power to save the lives of strangers, Ryan Carroll and Brett Dowling were sitting in the kitchen of the Civic Center firehouse. They were talking about how they felt after they got the news that seven people died, despite their heroics.
Despite the heroics of their brothers and sisters on the job, the cops, even the local residents, some of whom caught children dropped from the inferno. Despite the bravery of that incredible little girl who did exactly what Ryan Carroll told her and negotiated her little brother down the aerial ladder.
“I have kids,” Ryan Carroll said, and as he said this, he exhaled heavily. “I can’t get that out of my mind. It’s terrible when anyone dies, but the kids. . .”
He couldn’t finish the thought because he was exhausted, and whatever exhilaration he might have felt from saving one family was tempered by the horrible realization that he couldn’t save the Sak family. It is the firefighter’s curse: You can’t save everybody.
Brett Dowling was nodding as Ryan Carroll spoke. He’s been on the job twice as long as Carroll, but the more important statistic is that, like Carroll, he has two young sons.
“You do the best you can,” Dowling said, almost to himself. “You just do the best you can.”
It is the credo of people who, against every innate sense of self-preservation, run into burning buildings to help strangers: You save who you can, and you pray for those you can’t.