A three-alarm house fire Wednesday afternoon in a densely packed Chelsea neighborhood that displaced up to a dozen residents may have been started by a cigarette butt left on a back second-floor porch, a resident said.
“I ran downstairs to the second floor, and the guy is pouring water on his back porch,” said Awilda Morales, 41, a mother of three who lived in the building on Congress Avenue. Her children were at school. “I asked what happened, and he said, ‘It’s on fire, and I can’t turn it off.’
“He told me that he had been smoking, and that a cigarette butt that he tossed on the porch caught fire,” Morales said.
Fire officials investigating the blaze said they had not pinpointed a cause, but were interviewing residents of the three-story, six-unit building at 142 Congress Ave. The fire broke out at 1 p.m. and took most of the afternoon to extinguish, authorities said.
Morales said she ran back upstairs to her third-floor apartment, grabbed her dog, then started ringing doorbells and banging on doors to alert others. She said she assisted in getting at least four people out. All the building’s residents escaped without injury.
As firefighters endured frigid temperatures, displaced residents huddled in the foyers of adjacent houses, calling loved ones on cellphones or speaking with Red Cross officials to find alternative housing.
Most residents fled without any possessions apart from the clothing they wore, and the bitter cold left them shivering. Neighbors offered them jackets and scarves or other winter accessories.
One unidentified resident who returned home held her daughter in her arms and stared in disbelief at the smoke billowing from her building.
Her daughter looked at the burning structure, too, and started crying. “That’s our house,” the girl yelled.
“Right now they’re cutting the side of my house so they can put the fire out,” said Nilsa Mendez, 27, whose three children were at school when the fire erupted. Her attention then turned to the cold. “I’m freezing,’’ she said. “I’m freezing.”
Mendez said she would stay temporarily with her sister-in-law, who lives close by.
The time and the location of the fire probably reduced the chance of lives being in peril. Although many children lived there, they were all at school, residents said. Some adults were at work or on their way to pick up their children. The fire started in the back of the building, leaving clear escape routes out front, authorities said.
Deputy Fire Chief Charles Crowley said the blaze spread quickly and escalated to three alarms, with more than 20 firefighters responding.
One firefighter was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital for an unknown injury.
“There’s no official cause yet, and we don’t know the exact amount of damage, but the house was heavily involved,” Crowley said.
Brian Ballou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.