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‘It sounded like fireworks or a cannon.’ Resident describes harrowing scene in Fitchburg blaze

Fire tore through this condominium building at 7 Beekman St. in Fitchburg Sunday. Nicholas Gilman

Residents of a Fitchburg condominium building described a harrowing scene when an explosion rocked the building and started a raging fire Sunday night.

“It sounded like fireworks or a cannon,” said Seth Michaud, who was displaced as a result of the three-alarm fire, authorities said.

The body of 59-year-old Raymond L. Jerome, along with two detonated improvised explosive devices, were found in the wreckage of the blaze at 7 Beekman St., according to Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early’s office.

The 22-unit building is the former home of the Bartley Nolan School, which was converted into condominiums in the 1980s, fire officials said. At least 34 residents were displaced as a result of the fire.

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Jerome’s condo unit was scheduled to be sold at public auction Sept. 25 to satisfy a lien that was placed on the property as the result of a lawsuit filed by the condo trustees, according to a legal notice published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Jerome had also fallen behind on paying his taxes. According to Fitchburg’s treasurer and collector, he owed the city $3,404.89 and the city recorded a tax taking at the Worcester North Registry of Deeds in March of this year.

Michaud, 30, lived across the hall from Jerome and was outside of the building when the fire started. Michaud said he just dropped his 5-year-old daughter off at her mother’s and was standing in the parking lot with his girlfriend when he heard a loud blast.

“I wasn’t sure what happened,” he said.

Suddenly Michaud and his girlfriend were getting hit by bricks, wood, and pieces of insulation. He said his girlfriend suffered “a bunch of cuts,” from the falling debris, and they could have easily been seriously injured or killed.

“The explosion was huge,” he said. “If I was five feet to the left, it would have been a different story. We’re both shaken up about it.”

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Immediately after the blast, Michaud drove his girlfriend’s truck out of the parking lot and then he ran into the building to get some of his belongings.

“All I wanted was my filing cabinet,” he said. It contained his birth certificate, yearbook, baby photos that his mother had given him, and other important documents.

He ran upstairs to the third floor, but when he opened the door to the hallway, a wall of thick smoke prevented him from going any further.

“I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “It was just all black smoke.”

Michaud ran back outside. “Two minutes later you could see flames where [Jerome’s] apartment was,” he said.

Michaud rented a one-bedroom unit across the hall from Jerome. He said he’d only seen his neighbor a handful of times. “I’ve lived there since 2016 and probably seen the guy five times,” he said. “He was secluded. He kept to himself.”

“He was upset that people were trying to kick him out,” he said. “He had made threats in the past....I don’t get why he was still in the building when they knew he was a problem.”

Michaud said he feels like the situation could have been avoided, but no one foresaw what was to come.

“You never expect someone to do something like this,” he said.

Firefighters used a ladder to rescue a woman who was trapped on the third floor. She and another woman were taken to the hospital and treated for smoke inhalation, according to Fitchburg Fire Chief Kevin Roy.

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One firefighter suffered a one minor back injury — a pulled muscle — and is doing OK, Roy said.

The first two floors of the 22-unit building sustained water and smoke damage. There was heavy fire damage on the third floor and the roof collapsed, Roy said.

Roy said 34 people had been confirmed as displaced as of Thursday morning, and that number might go up.

Fire officials are hoping to make the site safe enough for residents to go in and try to salvage their belongings.

“We’re trying to get them back in,” Roy said.

As far as when that could happen, “it’s too early to say right now,” he said. “We certainly want to do that if we can.”

Michaud fears that he lost everything: his daughter’s toys, clothes, bed, her iPad, “drawings from school she gave me — stuff I can never get back,” he said. He works as a manager at a welding and fabrication shop, and was told he makes too much money to qualify for financial assistance to put down a deposit on a new apartment. But he did receive two $50 food vouchers, a $100 clothing voucher, and as $125 debit card from the Red Cross to pay for two nights at a Motel 6.

Michaud said he still feels like he’s in a state of shock, and trying to figure out what to do.

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“Sept. 23 was my 30th birthday,” he said. “For my birthday I became homeless.”

Michaud said it’s been a difficult ordeal (‘I break down at least four or five times a day,’ he said) but he’s trying to stay positive.

“I’m just thankful I’m alive,” he said.

Michaud said his brother-in-law kindly started an online fund-raiser for him on GoFundMe.com (https://www.gofundme.com/f/please-help-a-single-father-who-lost-everything), and he’s also “holding onto a little hope” that he can salvage some of his belongings.

Nick Gilman, 31, was at home making pizza and his fiancee was watching a TV show on the Lifetime channel when they heard the blast. “I heard BOOM!,” he said. “The whole house shook.” Gilman looked out the window and saw broken glass outside of the building. He went out to see what was going on and he saw “a waterfall pouring down stairwell.” Another resident, who was wearing soaking wet clothes, told him about the fire.

Gilman rushed back to his unit to get his fiancee out and alerted his other neighbors. He was also able to save their two dogs — Rosie, a corgi lab mix, and Bentley, a boxer terrier mix.

“I was in my pajamas, banging on doors,” he said. “I ran back in to try to save my neighbors cat.”

But by then the smoke was too intense. “We don’t know if the cat made it,” he said.

Gilman said his fiancee ran into Jerome prior to the fire and saw him loading stuff into his car. “He was very quiet and kept to himself. But he always says hi to us,” he said.

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It wasn’t until after the fire that Gilman learned of Jerome’s problems — that he hadn’t been paying his condo fees. He also heard allegations that he was a hoarder.

“I guess his theory was if he can’t live there, no one can,” he said.

Gilman and his fiancee had lived there for a year and a half, renting a two-bedroom on the second floor. They had planned to buy a home soon. Now they are staying in a hotel room in Gardner trying to figure out what to do. Their two dogs are “freaked out. They’re just shaken up.”

And Gilman and his fiancee are, too.

“We just lost everything,” he said.

Photos and keepsakes from his childhood, their antiques, their artwork — are all gone.

“I literally have been crying nonstop,” he said. “Our lives are ruined. We’re starting from scratch.”

He said his friend started an online fund-raiser for him and his fiancee on GoFundme.com (https://www.gofundme.com/f/rebuilding-nick-and-kelsey039s-life).

The United Way of North Central Massachusetts also set up a fund called the “Fitchburg Fire Relief Fund” to benefit all residents affected by the Beekman Street fire. Donations can be made by texting FFRF to 50155.


Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.