FALL RIVER — A 72-year-old woman was killed, and a second person was critically injured, after the car they were in crashed into an apartment complex here New Year’s Day and struck a natural gas line that sparked a massive fire, officials said.
Heavy smoke and roaring flames forced frightened residents to escape the 36-unit apartment building on North Main Street shortly before 10 a.m. Tuesday.
“All we heard was just a big bang,” Drakkar Wade, 20, who said he was asleep when the car rammed into the apartment next to his unit on the first floor.
The deceased woman was identified Tuesday night as Judith Mauretti, 72, of Fall River by the Bristol district attorney’s office. It is unclear if she was the driver or passenger of the vehicle.
A person was pulled from the burning vehicle and rushed to Rhode Island Hospital, where they were in critical condition, authorities said.
No residents were injured in the fire that quickly grew to six alarms, drawing more than 100 firefighters from several South Coast communities, Fall River fire Chief John D. Lynch said.
“It could’ve been a disaster,” Lynch said at the scene. “The guys on scene here did a fantastic job.”
Four Fall River firefighters were taken to the hospital for treatment of exhaustion, but were in good condition, Lynch said.
The apartment building was heavily damaged and in danger of collapsing, Lynch said. For that reason, fire crews were scheduled to remain on scene overnight into Wednesday, he said.
The complex is owned by Bridgewater-based Claremont Companies, which could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Messages left at the Fall River leasing office were not returned.
It is not known what caused the car to crash into the building, Lynch said. The cause of the crash and fire are under investigation, according to a statement from the state fire marshal’s office.
The car is believed to have traveled about 15 feet into the first floor. “We have reports that the vehicle was traveling at a high rate of speed,” Lynch said,
Fall River police received 911 calls around 9:40 a.m. reporting the crash that “ . . . appears to have set off a fire at the apartment complex,” the district attorney’s office said.
Fire crews arrived to find fire so heavy they were at first unaware that a vehicle had smashed into the building, Lynch said. But they quickly discovered two people inside the vehicle, and worked to free them, Lynch said.
The building had working smoke alarms but no sprinklers. A portion of the building’s roof collapsed. A firefighter stood atop a ladder truck pouring water into the building for several hours. A group of firefighters worked on one side of the building, using their axes to hack away at the wood siding. A large section of the front of the building was scorched by fire, and several windows were blown out.
Stunned residents, many of them wrapped in blankets from the Red Cross, looked on in disbelief.
“I lost everything,” said Lacey Ibello, 20, who is Wade’s girlfriend.
The couple had held a New Year’s Eve gathering the night before. Another couple and their baby, and four other guests had stayed overnight in the apartment, she said. All made it out safely, but it was a close call.
Wade said the bedroom wall was the only barrier between the crash and the bed he and his girlfriend were sleeping in. “Five feet to the right and that would’ve been our heads,” Wade said.
The couple and their guests were confused about what had happened. The smoke was so thick that they could not tell that a car had plowed into the building, he said. “I feel so grateful I’m alive,” Wade said.
Ariel Keeton, 21, traveled with her boyfriend from Illinois to visit her grandmother, who lives in a second-floor apartment. Keeton was in the shower when the crash occurred. All of them could hear the smoke detectors going off, and quickly exited.
When they got outside, they saw smoke, and then fire, from the area where the car struck. “This is my worst nightmare,” said Keeton, who said her father had died in a fire.
A resident, who gave his name only as Cory, said he and his girlfriend and their 5-year-old son were also alerted to the fire by the sound of smoke alarms. After he left his third-floor apartment and looked over a railing, he could see smoke and fire from the first-floor area.
“I went from fire drill mode to panic mode, to survival mode,” he said.
Shortly after 4 p.m., a group of firefighters exited a doorway from the building and handed Cory several items they gathered from his apartment. “Thank you,” he told the firefighters. “Thank you.”Correspondent Breanne Kovatch contributed to this story. John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.