A Sutton hotel housing migrant families caught fire Wednesday, sending one hotel employee to the hospital, nearly a week after a state senator raised safety concerns about the building with Governor Maura Healey.
The Red Roof Inn is one of dozens of hotels and motels being used by the state to shelter homeless people and migrants as part of the state’s emergency assistance shelter program.
The fire broke out on the same day the National Guard was deployed to fill in gaps at unstaffed shelters like the one in Sutton. The move was part of an emergency declaration by the Healey administration, as officials scrambled to house those in need in the state’s overwhelmed shelters, which have been pushed to the brink amid the current migration crisis.
In a three-page letter to Healey dated Sept. 7, Senator Ryan Fattman, a Republican from Sutton, outlined issues with the hotel’s location, public safety concerns, and safety hazards.
He also referred to notices from May and June sent by the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety, chastising the hotel’s management for continuously failing to have a working phone system. The noncompliance, he said, “potentially endangers your guests, employees, and the public.”
In his letter to Healey, Fattman wrote: “Why then are the migrant families sent to reside in a hotel that your administration has acknowledged and deemed a ‘public safety hazard?’ How will we prevent hotels that are deemed non-compliant with public safety standards from housing migrants as your program expands?”
In a statement, state housing secretary Edward M. Augustus said “The health and well-being of families in state shelter are our top priority.”
”We are grateful for the local fire department and the National Guard member on site who quickly extinguished the fire, ensuring no hotel resident was injured,” he said.
Fattman said he decided to send a letter after the administration briefed lawmakers last week on the state’s response to the influx of migrants. During the call, he raised concerns from Sutton police and fire officials that it was unsafe to use the hotel as a shelter.
He left the meeting feeling that not enough was being done to address the crisis.
In an interview Wednesday, Fattman said seeing the fire made him “absolutely sick.” He had arrived at the hotel with the plan to welcome the Guard members alongside other local elected officials when he saw smoke billowing out of a second-floor window.
“What kind of due diligence is being done about the places these vulnerable people are being placed by the state?” he said. “I was just watching this play out like a horrible movie.”
The fire started around 11:40 a.m. in a stove in the hotel staff area and was contained to the room where it began, said Sutton Fire Chief Matthew Belsito. Six towns responded to the blaze he said.
The hotel is more than 3,000 feet from the nearest water supply, meaning it takes four or five trucks to get water to the hotel, Belsito said. The language barrier with the migrants is also an issue, he said.
In an email to Fattman last month, Belsito outlined the water situation, writing that the long distance from a water line “would severely delay us in conduction search and rescue operations.
“One would think that the state would only use hotel/motels that are sprinkled and have fully addressable alarm systems monitored 24/7, especially with a language barrier,” he wrote. “However, I guess safety is not a priority here?”
In an interview Wednesday, Belsito said, “We can thank our lucky stars [the fire] happened during daytime hours and not during nighttime hours when people were sleeping.”
“The outcome could have been a lot different,” he added.
No guests were hurt, though several people were evaluated for smoke inhalation injuries. One of the Guard members who arrived in Sutton Wednesday was also evaluated for smoke inhalation after they tried to help respond to the fire.
Healey told reporters Wednesday that the deployment was “going well” and that Guard members are making sure migrant and homeless families have safe living conditions. She added that ultimately, the onus is on the federal government to approve funding for the overwhelmed shelter system and reform the country’s immigration system so people don’t have to wait as long for work authorizations.
She said the state “will continue to take steps necessary to cover the expenses here,” and she called on the Biden administration and Congress to act.
“We’ll continue this operations as long as necessary every day we continue to pursue and demand funding from the Biden administration,” she said at an unrelated event at the State House. “It is the failure of the federal government that has resulted in states like ours having to bear this burden right now.”
An influx of migrants over the past two years, coupled with a deepening housing crisis, has overwhelmed the state’s emergency family shelter system. Massachusetts is required to provide emergency shelter to homeless families under a 1983 “right-to-shelter” law, the only state with such a requirement.
According to state officials, 6,409 families, including children and pregnant women, were in emergency shelters as of Wednesday. More than 2,700 were being housed in hotels and motels.
This story has been updated.