Fire breaks out at LI apartment high rise

December 2, 2009 2:41:40 PM PST
One man was seriously injured in an apartment fire, and now, investigators believe one tenant's financial plight may have caused the blaze. The power company had turned off the woman's lights, and she was using candles to see. Authorities say those candles likely started the fire.

In the mddle of the night, firefighters rushed to evacuate a huge apartment building on Terrace Avenue in Hempstead on Long Island. It was a smoke-choked wake-up call for hundreds of residents.

"I went to look out the window, I could feel the flames coming up," resident Kevin Pagett said. "And I just ran out."

The fast-moving fire gutted at least two apartments and seriously damaged several more.

Investigators say a tenant had lit a candle before falling asleep, and that flame ignited a lampshade and quickly spread.

"The apartment inside is completely gutted," Nassau County fire marshal Vincent McManus said. "The resident of that apartment was very lucky to escape with her life."

The smoke was so thick that one neighbor dangled from his window to find fresh air but slipped, falling four stories.

"Firefighters were within seconds of rescuing this man," McManus said. "There was a firefighter at or near his apartment door, calling to him."

He was rushed to the hospital with critical injuries. Nearly a dozen others, including a fire fighter who breathed too much smoke, were also hospitalized.

The Red Cross is helping 11 families find other places to stay. Among them is Pagett, who lost everything.

"My whole apartment is wrecked," he said. "Nothing, nothing. I'm like now what am I going to do?"

The story is especially tragic because of why the candle was lit in the first place. The Long Island Power Authority confirms the woman who lit the candle did so because she had no electricity.

LIPA says she hadn't paid the bill in five months and, after dozens of warnings, the authority shut off the lights Tuesday.

Neighbor Pat Redmond says the woman had been in and out of the hospital and simply fell behind.

"Can't pay the bills, you know?" she said. "And it's hard times right now."

The Home Energy Assistance Program is a federally-funded program that helps supplement a household's annual energy cost. For more information, visit