NORWICH – The Chenango County Emergency Services Fire Investigations Unit, Norwich Fire Department and Norwich police are looking into the circumstances of a fatal Norwich fire that claimed the lives of two residents and seriously injured another on February 3.
Chenango County Fire Coordinator Matthew Beckwith said investigator were still looking into the incident and little new information was available.
“This is an active investigation and there is little we can release on it,” he said Thursday.
A cause and origin to the fire has not been released.
Beckwith said an explosion at the scene may have been caused by a medical oxygen tank kept by one of the residents.
Norwich Fire Chief Jan Papelino said autopsies were being conducted at Guthrie Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton.
Norwich Police Chief Reuben Roach said investigators had not ruled out foul play.
“The case is open and being investigated with the coordination of the Norwich Arson Investigators, and the District Attorney’s Office,” he said. No other information was available.
At about 2:07 a.m. on Saturday, February 3, the NFD responded to a 911 call of a fire at 19 Miller Street.
The Norwich Fire Department was on scene within three minutes of getting the 911 call, said Papelino. The fire alarm sounded at 2:04 a.m. Papelino said the first crews on the scene were confronted by heavy fire and smoke conditions.
Right after crews arrived a resident was injured after leaping from a second-floor window to escape the flames.
“The fire building involved a two-story wood frame, multi-family dwelling. During the initial attack and search a single occupant was located at a second floor window. As firefighters were preparing to ladder the building to assist the occupant, the occupant jumped from the window,” said Papelino.
The resident suffered serious injuries and was transported to Chenango Memorial Hospital by ambulance for immediate treatment. The victim was then transported to SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.
On Thursday Papelino gave an update on the victim's condition saying, “She has been moved from the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) to the burn treatment unit.”
“She took a good 20-25 foot fall out that window,” said Papelino “We immediately got her on a stretcher and to Chenango Memorial.”
“It was getting hot where she was, until we can talk to her we don't know what happened, we have a lot of unknowns,” he said.
During the response the chief said a number of tenants fled the home. He said two bodies were eventually found by firefighters on the second floor.
“Unfortunately, the incident did result in the fatalities of two adult individuals,” said Papelino. There were no reported injuries to firefighters.
Papelino said investigators were looking to see if the building had adequate fire protection, including smoke detectors.
Along with the City of Norwich, the North Norwich, Sherburne, and Oxford Fire Departments were also called to respond. The Norwich Police, along with members of the Chenango County Emergency Services and NYSEG were also on scene.
Neighbor runs to help
Sometime just before 2 a.m. in the early hours of Saturday morning, Norwich resident Todd Diamond stepped outside his Pleasant Street home and almost immediately noticed something was wrong.
“I went out to the porch to let my dogs out and I looked over and I seen fire or something, and I thought 'What the heck.'”
Down around the corner on Miller Street Diamond said he heard “popping,” smelled smoke and saw flames flickering in the distance. At first he thought maybe a neighbor was having a late night bonfire but as he watched for a moment and approached the scene the flames were growing at an alarming rate.
He said there was a “lean-to” on the side of the property and a door toward the back of the home that were on fire. He said he thought the door was an entryway into the second floor apartments, but wasn't sure.
“It got bigger and bigger and I was like, 'Oh no,'” recalled Diamond. “And then I ran over and yelled 'Fire!, Fire!'”
He ran over to the home along with his girlfriend and began yelling to those inside. Other people had also noticed the fire and a few others ran over to the scene.
“We looked in a window and there was a lady inside, like on a medical bed,” he said. Diamond began frantically searching for a door to get inside the apartment, as others yelled for them to just break the window.
Diamond entered a hallway into the two story home, that had been converted into three apartments.
Two apartments were located upstairs and one downstairs.
He recalled light smoke at first but said it was worse when he went upstairs and banged on the apartment doors. There was no response, just barking, so he ran downstairs and entered the first floor apartment.
“We went downstairs and we seen the lady in there and I thought 'Oh God,' we need to get her out because the fire was right next to that car port and her bedroom window is like right there, where the wall was,” he said.
The woman was physically disabled with no legs and needed a wheelchair.
“I finally got inside and got in the door where she was, there was two guys inside, and they just left and it was just me and her. The room was getting smokier and smokier.”
Diamond said he wasn't as worried when he first entered the building but after a few moment he was alarmed by how fast the smoke was getting worse.
“It was getting cloudier and cloudier, and those two guys ditched me and her,” he said. The woman told him to go save the others in the apartment building and get her last.
He heard people coughing more, the smoke was much thicker now, the haze began impairing his vision and stung his eyes. Above their heads darker clouds of thicker smoke occasionally rolled over the ceiling.
“I said, 'No. no, you are coming with me.'” he said.
He said, “'Grab on to me.' So she put booth her arms around my neck.” He lifted the woman into a nearby wheelchair.
“I turned around and the whole room is now smoke. So I yelled 'We got to go!” She yelled “What about my dogs?”
He responded, “I'll get the dogs once I get you outside.”
As Diamond pushed the wheelchair out of the room the smoke was so heavy he could not see well while standing up and breathing was painful. He decided to crouch and got down on his knees. With both of them staying as low as they could he pushed the wheelchair toward the exit.
As they crossed the final room to leave, Diamond could now see fire burning its way out from inside the first floor walls.
“I was pushing and then I was on my belly, because there was a bunch of stuff in the way, blocking the wheelchair. I was just pushing it over stuff and near the doorway she fell out of the wheelchair, so I picked her up, like under her arms, and carried her to the doorway and got her out of the house,” he said.
“The smoke was getting so bad, fast,” he said. “It was crazy.”
About five minutes after they exited the building a loud explosion occur somewhere inside the home.
“Something went boom. It was a really loud noise,” he said.
Police and fire investigators later interviewed Diamond, asking about where he first saw the fire.
The Evening Sun reached out to the woman mentioned in this story on Thursday, but did not receive a response by press time.