A Brighton man credited with repeatedly entering the burning three-family residence where he lived with his large family and with helping residents to escape died Thursday morning after he apparently became disoriented and could not reach a basement exit, fire officials said.
Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn said the man was not reported missing until after firefighters conducted a primary search and accounted for everyone believed to be living at 105 Murdock St.
But as the four-alarm blaze spread from the first-floor kitchen, where a Fire Department spokesman said it was sparked by an electrical short circuit, to the third-floor unit where the man lived, firefighters were informed that he might be missing, Finn said.
Firefighters faced a language barrier with family members, who primarily speak Spanish and are from Honduras, Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald said. He added that 14 family members were living in the apartment, which occupied the third floor and an attic. Neighbors said they did not know the family well.
The missing man’s family members said they believed he was in the attic, which was fully engulfed in flames by the time firefighters learned he was unaccounted for, said MacDonald, who added that the blaze broke out about 7:30 a.m.
“And that’s when we decided we were going to go back in and conduct a customary secondary search,” Finn said.
The man, whose name was not released, was found in the rear of the basement, Finn said. He described the victim as middle-aged.
“He certainly had opportunity to get himself out,” Finn said. “He went back and forth a couple times to track his family members. He must have been disoriented and went by the exit.”
A neighbor who helped rescue a girl and escort residents from the fire also described confusion caused by the language barrier.
Mike Grant and his co-worker James Skerry were leaving for work from Grant’s home on nearby Dustin Street when they saw smoke and started driving toward the burning building.
Grant said they went into the building twice, ushering a young boy, a man, and a woman with a baby to safety.
After assisting them, Grant said he and Skerry saw a girl dangling from a window.
“Her entire body was standing out on that little skinny ledge holding on for dear life,” Grant said. “So it was seconds for her to drop and fall, and there was smoke coming out the window.”
Grant said he and Skerry got a 32-foot ladder from their vehicle and ran it up the window to the girl, whom he estimated to be 13 to 14 years old.
He said he grabbed her foot and put it on the ladder and then seated her on his shoulder to guide her down the ladder.
Grant said he then asked the woman carrying the baby if anyone else was in the building. She replied that there were two, he said.
“I don’t think she really understood me. . . . And I’m going, ‘Well, I only took one person down,’ ” Grant said. “Then she said, ‘Nothing.’ She says, ‘No. No.’ So it was very confusing with her to get the total idea of who was in there and who was not left in there.”
A spokeswoman said the American Red Cross aided 27 people including a 20-day-old baby, a 7-year-old, and a 5-year-old.
The blaze spread upward through the building and into the attic, where it stubbornly resisted firefighters’ efforts to extinguish it, Finn said. The flames then jumped to 107 Murdock St.
Jim Ritteman, who owns that building and lives on its second floor, said he saw an orange glow through his blinds and heard glass cracking.
“The flames were going by my second-floor window, so they were really rolling,” he said.
His tenants got out safely, Ritteman said.
Eight people who lived on the first and second floors of 105 Murdock St., where the fire started, were also displaced, MacDonald said.
City officials said they are investigating whether there were any violations at the premises.
The city limits the number of undergraduate students who live together, but those rules do not apply to families, officials said.
“There’s no limit as long as they’re related,” Finn said. “Right now, it’s undetermined if there was anything illegal or legal going on.”
The state sanitary code includes rules for how much square footage residences require based on the number of people who live there. It was unclear whether the apartment met those requirements.
The city’s Inspectional Services Department inspected 105 Murdock St. in August 2013 and did not find any code violations such as illegal units, said Kate Norton, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston.
Also last year, the owner was issued permits to remodel a second floor unit by installing a new kitchen and bath, replacing the plumbing, and updating the electrical wiring, records show.
Berkshire Investments LLC owns the property, according to city and state records.
The agent for the Brookline company is listed as Robert Burk on an annual report filed with the secretary of state’s office.
In a brief interview at the scene, Burk said he did not know anything about reports that 14 people lived on the third floor.
“It’s news to me,” said Burk, who declined to comment further.
Jennifer Wheel, 25, who has lived since May with three friends on the newly renovated second floor of 105 Murdock St., said she awoke Thursday to the blare of smoke detectors and black smoke obscuring her view. In terror, she crawled around the apartment, banging blindly on her friends’ doors, before realizing she was alone.
She crawled to the stairs and fled the building as smoke, emanating from the first floor, billowed around her.
Once outside, Wheel said she called 911.
“I couldn’t really see anything in my apartment, so I couldn’t imagine the people on the third floor trying to get down, and there were so many,” she said. “I’m heartbroken for them.”
Below are some reports and images from the scene:
B side between 107 (l) and fire building 105 (r) http://t.co/dJJguUj090— Boston Fire Dept. (@BostonFire) August 21, 2014
House sits on a corner Murdock and Gardena St http://t.co/uFPKDLi1SS— Boston Fire Dept. (@BostonFire) August 21, 2014
Gardena St. Side http://t.co/SM9D7U3KsX— Boston Fire Dept. (@BostonFire) August 21, 2014
No reports of missing residents. Searches negative. 14 people lived in the 3 decker at 105 Murdock. Not all home.— Boston Fire Dept. (@BostonFire) August 21, 2014
No reported injuries. 4th alarm ordered.— Boston Fire Dept. (@BostonFire) August 21, 2014
Heavy fire top floor extended to 107 Murdock. 3rd alarm ordered.— Boston Fire Dept. (@BostonFire) August 21, 2014
Response at 7:30 am to 105 Murdock St. in Brighton for a building fire. Smoke showing on arrival. 2nd alarm ordered. 3 decker— Boston Fire Dept. (@BostonFire) August 21, 2014
Brighton right now http://t.co/XVimlKeBGf— Boston Fire Dept. (@BostonFire) August 21, 2014