There was no smoke at first, witnesses said. But drivers on the Southeast Expressway could see the flames on the roof of the five-story condo building where Sharon Tulchinsky has lived since 2003.
Standing outside 72 Northampton St. on Wednesday, the 55-year-old Tulchinsky recounted the startling moment she learned about the fire late Tuesday night.
“I didn’t realize there was a fire until the police started banging on the door and yelling, ‘You need to go!’“ she said. “Somebody was screaming from the street, but people scream from the street here a lot. Then the police started saying, ‘You need to leave now,’ and I was like, ‘OK, this is serious.’“
Tulchinsky and all her fellow residents — along with their pets — safely evacuated from the 32-unit building in Roxbury.
A person walking by had spotted flames billowing up from the roof, triggering the response by Boston firefighters at 11:45 p.m. Within five minutes of their arrival, a third alarm was struck, said firefighter Brian Alkins, a fire department spokesman.
Tulchinsky stepped out of her unit and saw firefighters arriving.
“As I was leaving, all the firefighters were coming up,” she said. “I never smelled smoke until we left.”
Firefighters deployed ladder trucks around the building and pulled hoses up the ladders with them and also up interior stairwells to the fifth-floor roof where they connected to interior standpipes, Alkins said. That resulted in a fast knockdown of the fire and limited the fire to the roof, he said.
“The fire really never got inside,” Alkins said. “There wasn’t a lot of smoke until afterwards. It wasn’t a heavy smoke — it was just a haze of smoke.”
The fire is not deemed suspicious, but the cause remains under investigation by the department’s Fire Investigation Unit. Possible causes being explored are the careless disposal of smoking materials on the rooftop deck, an electrical wiring issue on the rooftop, and a problem with a rooftop air conditioning unit, Alkins said.
A spokeswoman for the city’s Inspectional Services Department said investigators are looking into a report that someone was grilling on a deck.
”We believe at this point in time that someone was grilling on the deck,” spokeswoman Lisa Timberlake said. “Somehow or another the fire got out of hand and connected with the building.”
She said when firefighters arrived, no one was on the roof.
“They must have fled,” she said. “But there was actual evidence that somebody was up there on the grill.”
Timberlake said residents won’t be allowed to return until the building is cleaned of smoke and water damage and any code violations created by the damage are repaired. A damage estimate was not immediately available.
The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army were both on the scene during the height of the blaze. The Red Cross is working to contact all residents to offer emergency assistance, officials at both organizations said. Residents can reach the Red Cross by calling 800-564-1234.
Alkins said units on the third, fourth, and fifth floors sustained heavy water damage and the entire building was affected by the smoke.
A few of the displaced people passed black plastic garbage bags around to each other Wednesday morning, preparing to go into their units, one at a time, to collect some of their belongings.
Tulchinsky said she spent the night in her car, where sleep was in short supply and for now will move to her second home in Bourne.
Scott Hadfield, another resident, said he expects to spend a second night staying at Congregación León de Judá, the church next door, where officials allowed residents to shelter soon after the fire was discovered. Hadfield said he looked for a hotel to stay in but was finding it difficult in part because he has his dog with him.
Like Tulchinsky, Hadfield said he did not know the building was on fire. He did hear a smoke alarm sound, but did not give it much credence.
”I thought it was a false alarm,” the 69-year-old resident said. “Then [people across the street] started yelling, ‘Your building’s on fire! Get out!’”
Hadfield grabbed his wallet, keys, and dog but left his phone behind.
Betsy, Hadfield’s 10-year-old pit bull, whimpered as her owner went back into the apartment building to grab his belongings. Her paws were black with soot, which stood out against her white fur. Betsy laid down on a Red Cross blanket while Hadfield’s neighbors petted her.
Alkins noted that all were safely evacuated even though the fire was discovered shortly before midnight, when many residents were sleeping.
“It was late at night so, thank goodness, nobody got hurt,” he said. “Because it’s a high building [firefighters said] you could see fire and smoke from the highway. So that was pretty impressive. Thank goodness it wasn’t as bad as it looked.”
John R. Ellement of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.