CAMBRIDGE — An elderly woman was killed in a 3-alarm fire in Cambridge on Wednesday, officials said, amid frantic efforts by firefighters and onlookers.
Cambridge Fire Chief Gerry Mahoney said the woman died on the second floor of the three-decker wood-frame residence at 49 Webster Ave.
“It’s tragic for anybody to suffer a fire loss,” Mahoney said. “The loss of human life obviously is something that is really tragic … and compounded in the holiday season. Things have been so hard for so many people for so long with COVID and everything else. It’s just a very tragic situation.”
The woman was 88 years old and had a physical disability, state Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey’s office said in a statement. Authorities are withholding her name pending official identification by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation but does not appear to have been intentional, the fire marshal’s statement said. No smoke alarms were found inside the apartments but were present in the building’s stairways, where some residents said they heard the alarms activate, the statement said.
Investigators believe the fire began in a kitchen on the second floor, the statement said.
Mahoney said emergency crews responded to the neighborhood after a call came in from someone who spotted smoke coming from the home around 7:23 a.m. When firefighters arrived, they found heavy flames concentrated in the rear of the home, on the second and third floors.
As crews, including firefighters from Somerville, mounted an “aggressive interior attack,” the home’s rear stairwell, which connects the three floors, collapsed, Mahoney said. A third-floor porch collapsed as well.
When crews battled back the flames on the second floor, they found the deceased victim.
The other residents who were home escaped without injury. Around six people are displaced, Mahoney said, due to “significant structural damage.”
“Nobody will be occupying this building for quite some time,” he said.
The Red Cross was at the scene Wednesday morning assisting displaced residents.
Ostroskey said residents had little time to escape the blaze.
“Because of changes in manufacturing, modern fires burn much more quickly than they did just a few decades ago,” Ostroskey said in the statement. “You might have as little as one to three minutes to get out, so developing and practicing a home escape route is important for everyone. Be sure doors, windows, and stairways are clear of any obstructions. And if you use glasses, a hearing aid, or mobility aids, be sure to keep them nearby in case you need to grab them and go.”
Crews continued to extinguish hotspots around 9:30 a.m., reaching the roof by ladder. The smell of smoke lingered in the air as some passersby stopped to watch crews work.
One man, who identified himself only as Alisson, said he was doing construction work on the home next door when he noticed the flames. Within minutes, he said, a man escaped from the home and began screaming for his mother.
“He was saying ‘my mother, my mother! She’s still on the second floor!’” Alisson said through a Portuguese translator.
Upon hearing the man’s cries, Alisson said, he and another worker tried to enter the home to save the woman, but the intense heat from the flames near the door kept them out.
“It was very sad that I couldn’t get in and save her,” he said. “She needed help, but it was too hot. The flames were very big.”
As the fire department came, Alisson and a neighbor who witnessed the fire said the man who escaped the house sat on the sidewalk in tears, still yelling for his mother.
“They were huge flames,” said one neighbor who asked not to be named. “And they were burning the side of the house next door. It was scary.”
In a wrenching scene hours after the fire was extinguished, relatives of the deceased woman gathered in front of the charred pastel green home, consoling each other and sobbing. They watched in tears as crews secured the second floor, where neighbors said she had lived.
“They said it was just smoke!” one family member sobbed repeatedly, rocking back and forth on the stone steps of a residence across the street.
The woman’s grandson, who said he was too upset to speak with a reporter, watched with resolve as firefighters cleared charred wood from the ceiling, and fought back tears as his grandmother’s body was carried from the home by staff from the medical examiner’s office.
The woman, neighbors said, had been a longtime fixture in the neighborhood, always greeting the people she knew with a smile.
She’d been known to take regular walks down the street with her husband, who neighbors said died a few years ago. Since his death, neighbors said, the woman struggled with mobility and had to use a walker.
“She used to be very active, outside all the time and taking walks — typical older neighbor,” said a neighbor from across the street who asked not to be named out of respect for the family. “She was one of those people that knew everyone and always had something to say if you walked by.”
The cause of the fire is being investigated by the Cambridge Fire Department, State Troopers assigned to the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, and the Cambridge Police Department, he said.
Mahoney, in the fire marshal’s statement, praised his crews for getting the blaze under control before it could spread to other homes in the neighborhood.
“I’d like to recognize the Cambridge firefighters who worked so hard to prevent this three-alarm fire from spreading to nearby buildings, which could have put many other people at risk,” he said.
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report.
Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22. Andrew Brinker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @andrewnbrinker.