Four dead in Paterson fire

July 1, 2010 4:15:21 AM PDT
A fast-moving fire in Paterson, New Jersey, destroyed a home and killed four people early Wednesday.Firefighters were on the scene within two minutes of getting the call. Even that quickly, massive flames were already shooting through the roof of 465 East 31st Street.

"I woke up to the scent of smoke," resident Tikilya Holland said. "So when I shoved my head out, I saw fire. So I went right downstairs and got everybody out of the house."

People were still trapped inside as the house buckled under the heat and heavy smoke. It just crumbled to the ground.

Cell phone video from the other side of the house shows an equally dramatic view.

"My girlfriend and I opened the door and the flames were right there," Ricky Hamrick said.

Hamrick made it out only because his brother Darrel woke him up and told him to get out, but then Darrel turned around and went back in to save his girlfriend.

"And that's how he lost his life," Hamrick said.

Some people jumped from windows, if they were lucky enough to have the chance.

Mark Smith, 46, was apparently not one of them. He was sleeping on the third floor.

"Probably got too much smoke in his lungs. That's probably what killed him," Calvin Smith, his brother, said.

Lisa Smith, 43, watched the scene with tears streaming down her cheeks, fearing her older brother was among the dead.

"We were just coming to get him. He was coming to live with us," Smith said. "A little bit too late, right?"

Smith said her brother, who was unemployed and waiting for a disability application to be approved, had rented a room on the top floor of the house. Smith said her older brother's smoked turkey, collard greens and secret-recipe crushed red pepper sauce was a family favorite at holiday gatherings.

By noon, firefighter didn't know how many people were buried under the burned, mangled debris, so they brought in dogs and began to recover bodies.

By day's end, three bodies were pulled from the rubble. The fourth person, who jumped from a third-story window, died at the hospital.

Another person who jumped suffered two broken legs and severe injuries.

Authorities suspect the blaze was caused by electrical problems, and that the house had previously been cited for violations.

"As of January of this year, we were there at the building and any violations we discovered were turned over to the Buildings Department," Glen Brown, Director of Public Safety, said.

The fire department was called to the house for a faulty boiler in January, which is when officials cited the home owner for electrical violations, said Paterson Fire Chief Michael Postorino. What the buildings department did from there is still not known.

Many there said the house was a boarding home with too many apartments.

It took firefighters hours to put out the fire. The Red Cross is assisting 11 people left homeless by the flames.