Firefighters Quell “Stubborn” 2-Alarm Fire

Melissa Bailey PhotoFreshman 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.”

Fire #2

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.

Thomas MacMillan Photo

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posted by: Dean Moriarty on December 13, 2012  1:46am

Can’t express how much praise I feel NHFD deserve.  These people go beyond the fray and risk their lives everyday.  I’m glad there’s an account like this that details what they go through.  Also want to thank Melissa and Thomas for this amazing journalism.  You’ve really presented what both the victims and the rescuers go through in these situations.  I don’t think I’ve ever read an account like this of a fire.  Thank you both, keep up the great writing.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on December 13, 2012  9:47am

Sure doesn’t make Mr. Candelora look good.  He’s had no lunch, he’s hungry, tired, and cold.  Yeah, well, so are his tenants, and they just lost their home and all their possessions, but he gets to drive away in his truck after dropping a bunch of obscenities because the people who just risked their lives trying to save his property are asking him to sign a consent form.

Have a nice day, Mr. Candelora.

posted by: MamaBear on December 13, 2012  11:26am

Currently multiple apartments on George Street listed on Craigslist…any chance someone could work with the landlord and Red Cross to relocate these families close to home before the holidays and not disrupt the kids schools. Also, any word on where and what can be donated???  Many thanks to the New Haven Firefighters and God Bless that every person made it out safely… so sorry about your loss of the cat…

posted by: cedarhillresident! on December 13, 2012  11:34am

I think this is why the landlord was jumpy

posted by: Good Natured on December 13, 2012  12:03pm

Good job to the NHFD—they all did a great job. And a big thanks to Melissa Bailey and Thomas McMillan for an excellent report with broader implications—Citizens of the city need to be informed about how often fires occur, their human costs, what protections their taxes help support (the New Haven FD) and that we have firemen who are professional, dedicated, and responsible (and landlords who, perhaps, are not).

posted by: canded on December 16, 2012  11:30am

Motion to Strike granted means the lawsuit was so frivolous the court didn’t even want to hear it. Riggott was being evicted at the time for non payment of Rent. the fire at exchange was believed to be from a blow back from the furnace in the attic. the gas company changed a part on the furnace as part of the maintenance plan that Candelora paid for. That part was believed to have caused it. candelora was cleared early on of any wrong doing. The copper was mysteriously missing from Riggott’s apartment after the fire no sign of forced entry and doors were locked, there was baseboard heat. Candelora cooperated fully for exchange st and tried to for this one. Candelora showed up at the house to help make sure tenants were out and answer any questions. He was accused without cause as soon as he got there. The reason Mr C left that day was because he was being verbally abused and accused of starting the fire before it was even out or investigation had begun. Not talked to but yelled at and harassed. He was cold so he went to his truck to get his jacket. He didn’t leave because he was cold. He left to calm himself down and hopefully allow the arson squad to calm down. When he was going to his truck he was already being followed and harassed more. He left because he is not a criminal and was not going to be treated like one. He has not charged with starting the fire. I did not see anyone yelling at the tenants. If you ask them they will tell you that he was a good landlord. The arson investigator then states in this article that Mr Candelora was not being accused but they sent an officer to stop him from leaving. If he wasn’t being accused why couldn’t he leave? The investigator didn’t get into the house till 4:30 but was harassing him at quarter to 4 (and earlier) when he tried to leave. To many inconsistencies here. He was asked several times what did you use to start the fire? If that is not accusing than I do not know what is. It’s a tragic event for all involved so please do not rush to judgement.