CAMBRIDGE — A nine-alarm fire that started in a vacant Cambridgeport three-decker swept through two nearby multifamily homes early Sunday morning, displacing up to 40 people as it raced through the narrow gaps between the buildings, authorities said.
Witnesses reported seeing smoke pouring from the vacant building's roof, before a wall of flames rapidly consumed the back porch. The fire left the facade of one building charred, and the sides of the others skewed and melted.
The flames broke out near the back of the building at about 3:20 a.m., authorities said, and within minutes, reached the other buildings: 151-155 Allston St., home to six families, and 163 Allston St., home to three.
"We were blessed that no one was hurt," said 19-year-old Shaq Anderson. "We're just happy everyone is alive."
The cause of the fire is under investigation. No injuries were reported, but the buildings were left uninhabitable, said Jeremy Warnick, director of communications for the Cambridge police.
"It started at a two alarm and then quickly escalated," Warnick said.
The vacant house, 159 Allston St., was built in 1903, according to city records. Police said the building has been vacant for more than three years.
Deputy Cambridge Fire Chief Gerry Mahoney said the proximity of the homes to each other in the densely populated section of Cambridge caused the fire to spread quickly.
"It just gets exponentially higher and higher, and hotter and hotter, and becomes a self-propagating affair," he said.
Residents rushed out of their homes amid screams and yelling, according to witnesses' accounts. About 50 people were gathered outside as firefighters began to arrive.
"It was really scary because it happened so fast," said Christina Eon, 47, who lives across the street. "The whole front of the [porch] was a wall of fire."
Susan Reverby, 68, who lives nearby, said the scene outside the homes was chaotic, as smoke alarms blared and residents fled their homes in pajamas and nightgowns. Some watched as their apartments went up in flames.
"The flames just shot up," she said. "Pretty quickly, they went very high in the air. It was just awful."
The walls of Joan Lafleur's third-floor apartment had been covered in Barbie dolls, Elvis memorabilia, and antique music boxes from around the world. Among the sea of Barbies were 19 Shirley Temple porcelain dolls Lafleur had bought in the 1980s; a pair cost $279, she said.
She had planned on having the more than 400 dolls and the other relics appraised, Lafleur said, and was hoping to sell them. She was left wondering if anything survived Sunday.
"You sit here and say, 'This was in the house. That was in the house,'" the 71-year-old said from her sister's home in Marshfield. "Every time I think of something I want to cry."
Lafleur was lucky, however: she had been away visiting her sister when the flames broke out. Slowed by arthritis of the back and hip, and a blood clot in her right leg, she probably would not have made it out, she said.
Joel Barnes said officers told him he would not be able to return to his second-floor apartment at 153 Allston St. for four days. The 24-year-old saw flames when he rushed four people downstairs Sunday morning.
"There was a lot of panic," he said. "I really thought they were going to be able to stop the fire earlier, but then it kept blazing. I didn't see the smoke stop until 8."
All of his possessions were still inside the apartment, which he said was probably destroyed. Barnes will stay with family in the area for now.
Firefighters remained on the scene, putting out hot spots through late morning.
The Red Cross set up a temporary shelter at Morse Elementary School in Cambridge. Displaced residents said they would be provided credit cards to buy food, clothes, and other necessities. Some who had nowhere to stay said the organization would arrange hotel rooms.
Like many of her neighbors, Lafleur was thankful the fast-moving fire did not result in any injuries. She was left mourning her collection Sunday afternoon. "All the pictures and everything are gone," she said. "So I have nothing for memories. I'll just have them in my mind, I guess."
@CFD_Local30 on arrival. Photographer unknown at this time pic.twitter.com/YjkWSfPnvd— Cambridge Local 30 (@CFD_Local30) July 27, 2014
Globe correspondent Gal Tziperman Lotan contributed to this story. She can be reached at email@example.com. Faiz Siddiqui can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.