Smoldering fire claims 5 lives

Posted 2/9/10

The first thing State Fire Marshal Jack Chartier asked firefighters when he arrived Saturday afternoon at the scene of a fire that claimed the lives of four adults and a 7-month-old girl was whether any heard the shrieking of smoke alarms. None had. …

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Smoldering fire claims 5 lives


The first thing State Fire Marshal Jack Chartier asked firefighters when he arrived Saturday afternoon at the scene of a fire that claimed the lives of four adults and a 7-month-old girl was whether any heard the shrieking of smoke alarms. None had. And Chartier was unable to say if there had been functional smoke detectors in the Buttonwoods Avenue home.

Despite the tragedy, the worst Rhode Island house fire since 1995 when a blaze in West Warwick killed five, Chartier thinks the outcome could have even been more horrific. The five victims were all upstairs and presumed sleeping when the fire started. A sixth person, Neil S. Leardi, 21, of Whitinsville, MA who was asleep downstairs, was awoken when a portion of the ceiling fell.

According to Fire Chief Kevin Sullivan, who briefed the news media Saturday evening in a vacant bay of Fire Station 1, Leardi attempted to evacuate those on the second floor but was pushed back by heat and smoke. He raced out of the house to call 911.

Firefighters arrived within three minutes, rushing into the house.

According to Chartier and Sullivan, the fire started and grew between the ceiling of the first floor and the floor of the second, unimpeded by insulation.

“You don’t usually use insulation between two interior floors,” said Sullivan. Chartier said there were two smoke alarms in the house, one on the second floor and one in the basement but they have not yet concluded about the condition or readiness of either of the devices Both Chartier and Sullivan emphasized that they found absolutely nothing to indicate there was a suspicious origin for the fire.

According to neighbors, they saw no sign of the fire from the exterior of the building. Inside was a different story.

In Chartier’s opinion, the firefighters were fortunate to get out unharmed. Chartier thinks the fire had been smoldering for some time, building up heat and consuming the oxygen in the building. When firefighters entered, air was introduced and flames were rolling up along the ceiling, Chartier said. One firefighter who reached the top of the stairs broke through the burned floor as he tried to reach a victim. He was able to catch himself and pull free before falling through the floor. He then carried one of the victims through the smoke to the yard where crews worked futilely to revive victims as they were extricated.

Chief Sullivan pointed out the effect of the fire will have on his firefighters.

“We immediately had a conference among the responders after the fire,” he said. “Firefighters always think they could have done more.”

Father Robert Marciano and other counselors have been made available to the firefighters. Counselors are also attending to students from Mount St. Charles High School, where several of the victims were former students, and where Jillson was an All-State twice while he attended before he graduated in 2004. Officials at the school are known to boast about a lasting bond between current and former students at St. Charles.

But the tragedy could have extended to the firefighters themselves.

Chartier thinks the fire was moments away from a “blow back,” when oxygen is introduced and causes the fire to burst into a raging inferno. He said the quick action of other firefighters dousing the house averted the situation, enabling rescue efforts to continue.

Those who perished in the fire were:

Amanda L.Villeneuve, 20, and her seven-month-old daughter Annabelle, who had been living at the Buttonwoods Avenue house that belongs to James I. Weeden; Amanda’s fiancé and the father of Annabelle, Daniel Janik, 20, of 388 Gaskill St., Woonsocket; Nicholas M. Jillson, 24, of 14 Lincoln Drive, North Smithfield, who was the son of North Smithfield Fire Chief Joel Jillson; and Tayla D. Lackey, 20, of Shaw Drive, in Glocester. Leardi told investigators the young people had been up late, entertaining themselves until around 3 a.m. He said he fell asleep on a couch downstairs after coming down to watch television around 7 a.m.

Avedisian said the tragedy affects people who are well known and liked all through Rhode Island’s famously close-connected population. James L. Weeden is warden at the maximum-security unit at the Adult Correctional Institutions. Susan Weeden is the retired head of Warwick’s Minimum Housing department.

The Weedens were in Vermont at the time of the fire.

The connections between the victims, their families and others in the city and the state, did not escape Avedisian. He said the impact is felt far beyond immediate family and friends. People who live in the area watched as renovations to the two-story Cape Cod house over the last couple of years said the property was always well kept. To them, the sudden loss of life is so unfathomable. Avedisian was visibly moved as he thought of what life must have been for the young victims immediately before the blaze. “Everything is great, everything is wonderful,” the mayor said.

Asked whether a community observance is planned, Avedisian said he would defer to the wishes of the family.

“We would want to find out what the family is planning first,” he said.

He said people are coming together to assist the families affected and that that action is a “source of comfort at this point.”

In the meantime, officials said the investigation is far from complete. There was nothing final from the medical examiner about whether smoke inhalation killed the victims before the fire reached them. Both Chartier and Sullivan showed complete discretion as far as the investigation’s progress was concerned, citing concern for the families of the victims. At the end of yesterday’s 4 p.m. news conference, Sullivan and Chartier said they deserve to get the full story of what happened but not until they have concluded their inquiry.

“This is too big a thing, too important a thing to rush,” said Chartier.

“We are not releasing anything until we get it right.”

Chief Sullivan hastened to add, for the benefit of the assembled media, “And we are going to tell them first.”


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