Freshman Torrai Darden looked out of the window at Career High School Wednesday afternoon and saw smoke. He never guessed the flames would be tearing through his house.
Torrai (pictured), who’s 15, said when he saw the smoke, “I thought it was coming from the projects,” the Waverly Townhouses at George and Waverly.
Then he got a call on his cell phone from his aunt.
“It’s my house,” he discovered. He left school and rushed home. He found out his family—including two sisters and two young cousins—had escaped without injury as flames tore through the three-family home they rent at 594 George St. Their Christmas presents, however, including a new tablet computer Torrai was expecting, were destroyed. Torrai and his family were among 10 people displaced by the fire.
The incident was one of two fires that occurred near each other Wednesday afternoon. Both were suppressed without injury.
The first fire began at 1:25 p.m. at Torrai’s home, a yellow multi-family house between Orchard and Waverly streets near the St. Raphael’s campus of Yale-New Haven Hospital. Initial reports indicated people were trapped on the third story, said Fire Chief Michael Grant. When firefighters got there, the fire was already blazing on the first and second stories. Firefighters crawled through all three stories of the home—twice—in search of people. It was “very dark, very hot,” a “hostile” environment, Grant said. They didn’t find any people, Grant said.
The fire tore through all three stories of the home, Grant said. Firefighters tackled the fire from all angles, inside and outside the house. Once he had determined no one was trapped inside, Grant pulled his firefighters out of the home and tackled it from the outside.
At 2:30 p.m., firefighters were working from two ladder trucks to tame the blaze. Flames were visible on the roof, where thick dark smoke billowed out, blowing through the West River and Dwight-Kensington neighborhoods.
Emergency personnel had shut down the street. A crowd gathered to watch the dramatic scene. The crowd included some undergraduates studying fire science at University of New Haven. They heard about the fire on a scanner and came to watch.
Visible flames leaped from the roof of the house in the rear. The fire proved tough to extinguish as it traveled through the many voids in the “balloon frame” house. The fire reignited several times.
“It was a stubborn fire,” Grant said as he came up for air around 3:30 p.m. He picked up his radio and proclaimed the fire “under control.” The house suffered severe damage to the roof; the city building department would determine whether it’s structurally sound.
Grant applauded his firefighters for risking their lives in the building and for preventing the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings.
“The members of this department did an outstanding job,” Grant said. “They kept the fire from burning down George Street.”
The cause of the fire remained unknown. Investigators hadn’t even entered the house as of 4 p.m. because it still wasn’t safe, said Detective Scott Branfuhr of the fire investigation team.
At about quarter to 4 p.m., landlord Ronald Candelora (pictured), who had been talking to investigators at the scene, got into his large white Dodge Ram truck and tried to drive away. A police officer stopped him. Candelora fumed at the police and firefighters investigating the case, who wanted him to sign a consent form letting them search the building before he left.
“Everybody wants to point a finger at me, but I want to tell them to fuck themselves,” Candelora told the Independent. “There’s no reason for me to start a fire,” he said. “I’m fucking tired of being accused.”
“I haven’t had lunch. I’m hungry and I’m tired and I’m cold. Unless they want to arrest me, I’m leaving,” Candelora said. An investigator told him he was not being accused of any crime.
Candelora eventually signed the consent form and drove away.
Meanwhile, his tenants huddled on the sidewalk, wondering about their future and awaiting word on where they might sleep that night.
A man named Jimmy said he was inside the second-floor apartment at the time the fire started. (He didn’t want to give his last name.) “The next thing I know, I’m sitting in the house. The alarm goes off. People are running in the hallway, yelling, ‘Fire!’”
Jimmy grabbed Moutie, the 10-year-old cat of a friend named Karol Curtis, who lives on the second floor. Moutie slipped out of his arms and ran back into the apartment, he said. Jimmy said the smoke was too thick for him to go back in for the cat.
Curtis, who said she lives alone on the second floor of the three-family house, wasn’t home at the time. Someone called her, and she rushed to the scene.
“My cat didn’t stand a chance, y’all,” she said as she stood watching the firefighters work. “I just don’t want to go in and find him dead.”
Moutie, who has soft black fur, was a present from her son, who is paralyzed, Curtis said.
Chief Grant said he had no information on any pets in the home.
Curtis sat on the steps of a nearby church and tried to grapple with the day’s events.
For the first time in her life, Curtis said, she found herself homeless, with only the possessions she was carrying. “I’ve never been in that situation before,” she said. “I can’t believe this happened.”
She tried to find a silver lining.
“Thank God it didn’t happen at night,” when people may not have been able to escape alive, Curtis said. “You can replace material things, but you can’t replace your life.”
Meanwhile, a second fire broke out at a combined residential-commercial building at Whalley and Ellsworth around 2:50 p.m. Some firefighters left the scene at George to help fight the second fire. That second fire was proclaimed “under control” at 3:08 p.m.
The fire broke out in a second-floor apartment above C&N Dominican Style hair salon, the Checks Cashed outlet, and A-1 Oriental Kitchen.
Battalion Chief Paul Sandella said the small fire was in the wall. The firefighters ran a hose into the back driveway, up some steps.
Someone was apparently doing repair work at the time the fire started, Sandella said. It appears someone was using a torch, which may have caused the fire.
No one was hurt.
As firefighters folded up their hoses outside, hairdressing work continued inside C&N hair salon. Water dripped from the ceiling onto a big blue tarp set up by firefighters. Nearby, three women sat under hood dryers, setting their ‘dos. Another sat in a chair in front of a mirror, having curlers put in.
Salon owner Carmen Tejada said she had been surprised when water started coming in through the ceiling. A number of her customers left, she said. Tejada said she has insurance to cover any damage.