LOWELL -- Seven people, including three children from the same family, were killed early Thursday in a three-alarm fire that may have been caused by illegal fireworks.
The fire at a three-story, mixed-use building at 73-81 Branch St. was discovered at about 3:30 a.m. by a police officer on patrol. The nearest fire station is located just about 100 yards away. Residents of the building were seen running to the fire station to summon help.
According to officials, the victims were found in two separate apartment units, located on the third floor.
Apparently the building had no sprinkler system, but it’s unclear if sprinklers would have stopped the fast-moving fire, officials said.
The victims have been identified as Torn Sak, and his wife, Ellen Vuong, and three of their five children, Sayuri Sak, 7, Anthony Sak, 12, and Ryan Sak, 9.
Another victim has been identified as Tina Christakos, who lived in a third-floor apartment.
On July 5, Torn Sak posted a photograph to Facebook of a large cache of fireworks in his apartment.
State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said there was a report of fireworks before the blaze, but he insisted it would be too early to say if fireworks factored into the fire.
The Fire Department had responded to 77 Branch St. on July 3 due to an alarm activation. Firefighters determined the alarm was set off because of a minor lighting firecrackers in the hallway.
The Fire Department also responded to a one-alarm fire at the building last July 28. A faulty neon sign on the first floor caught fire and power was shut off to that circuit. A small amount of fire showed through the first-floor window and there was light smoke when firefighters arrived. The cause of the fire was undetermined, but not suspicious.
Nearly 50 people were displaced in this morning’s fire. Nine others were injured and were taken to local hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries. Those displaced were transferred to the Lowell Senior Center. Lowell Fire Chief Edward Pitta said one firefighter was injured, not seriously. Pitta said there were reports of residents jumping from upper-story windows prior to fire trucks arriving. Because the nearest fire station is located fewer than 100 yards away, Pitta said firefighters were on the scene in seconds.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan promised a "long, thorough review" to determine the cause of the fire and whether the building was up to code. The large, three-story building is home to several businesses on the ground level, and apartments on the upper two levels.
Ryan said she was "deeply concerned" about unconfirmed reports that the fire alarm system was not working.
At one point during the firefighting effort, firefighters were ordered to evacuate because flames were so intense and widespread.
Ryan said there were multiple reports of rescues by firefighters and residents, and of residents jumping from upper-story windows into the arms of firefighters and residents on the ground.
Coan said it’s the most deadly fire in the commonwealth since seven people were killed in a North Attleboro blaze in 1994.
"This is a tragic day in the city of Lowell," Mayor Rodney Elliott said at the scene. Elliott said a fund for the victims would be opened at the Jean D’Arc Credit Union. The American Red Cross is also assisting.
Questions are already being raised about whether the building was up to code. Elliott told reporters on the scene that city officials were combing though the building’s records at City Hall.
"We do our best to inspect every building," Elliott said. "There are literally thousands and thousands of units across the city."
Soben Pin, who publishes the Khmer Post in Lowell, told a Sun reporter that many Cambodians lived in the building. She said it was her opinion that many of the residents are not familiar with fire alarms, or how to maintain them, such as changing batteries.
"The community should help them learn about how escape from a fire," Pin said. "Landlords should also be responsible for fire alarm testing."
One witness to the fire, Samantha Preap, of nearby Queens Street, said: "I was shocked. The fire was higher than the tree around the building."
Added Linda Rosario, whose Queen Street apartment had a clear view of the fire: "Oh my god. My heart goes out to all the families. I’ve never seen anything like this."
Jennifer Mieth, a spokesman for the state fire marshal, said several people had to be rescued from upper floors. The fire was discovered by a police officer on routine patrol. The city’s public safety dispatch center also received calls.
Video images show most of the roof burned away.