Great Barrington man killed, wife critically injured in apartment fire

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A blaze that raged through a Silver Street apartment Monday night killed Michael Romano, 68, who was in his wheelchair when firefighters pulled him from the unit, according to his next-door neighbors.

And his wife, Susan Romano, 67, remains in critical condition at Albany Medical Center in New York, where she was taken from Fairview Hospital, according to a statement released Tuesday afternoon by the Berkshire District Attorney's Office.

Steady rain and fog prevented helicopters from airlifting Susan Romano on Monday night, town Fire Chief Charles Burger told The Eagle.

The DA's office said Michael Romano was pronounced dead at the scene. A cause of death has not been determined, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will conduct an autopsy.

The cause of the fire does not appear to be suspicious, according to the statement. An investigation is ongoing by the Office of the State Fire Marshal, as well as the town Fire Department, and local and state police.

But Burger, as well as other tenants in the complex, Beech Tree Commons, told The Eagle that a smoke alarm never went off. The Romanos' alarm was "completely melted," so fire investigators never will be able to determine why it didn't activate, Burger said.

"The landlords are responsible for providing working smoke and carbon monoxide detection and responsible for maintaining it, but they are not responsible for what tenants might do," he said.

Burger said that each unit has one hard-wired smoke alarm in the hallway outside the bedrooms. While this does not comply with modern fire code, the placement of a single alarm was permitted due to the age of the unit.

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"That was all that was required in the 1970s when the place was built," he said.

The 66-unit affordable rental complex was built in 1972 and sold to Phil Gajewski in 2011. Gajewski Realty Trust owns three residential and three commercial properties in New England.

Staff at the Beech Tree management office said they were unable to comment Tuesday morning because they were meeting with fire and other officials.

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Tenant Chris Dolby, standing outside the charred wall of the Romanos' two-bedroom apartment, said she had heard repeated banging through the the couple's bedroom wall, which is adjacent to her unit, around 7:30 p.m.

She was not alarmed at first, she said, noting that she often heard banging if Michael Romano fell out of his wheelchair. But after about 10 minutes or so, she decided to go check on her neighbors.

"I stepped outside and it was orange outside, with smoke mixed with fog," she said. "I looked left, and saw flames going up the wall."

Dolby called police and ran for help.

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Burger, who with other firefighters remained at the scene until 4 a.m., said that firefighters knocked down the "fully involved" fire in the roughly 800-square-foot apartment in about 5 minutes. He said several rooms were engulfed before their arrival.

About 20 firefighters were on the scene immediately because they had been gathered together for a training at the station. There were concerns about the fire spreading to the seven other units in the the "E" complex at the rear of the property, which sits near train tracks. Fire had migrated "a little bit" into the attic space, Burger said, adding that he was concerned about the shared basement.

"Fires run very quickly in those spaces," he said.

Of the eight units surrounding the Romano unit, four "were pretty much untouched except for some residual smell." The three closer units sustained minimal smoke damage.

Dolby, who with tenants in three abutting units were being put up at the Day's Inn, said the Romanos had lived at the complex for about 30 years.

Multiple agencies and fire departments responded, including the Lenox Fire Department's Rapid Intervention Team. And the Sheffield Fire Department covered the Great Barrington station during the response.

Heather Bellow can be reached at or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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