UPDATED: Pot left on stove caused fire at Southpoint in Amherst

Last modified: Monday, August 11, 2014
AMHERST — Officials have determined that a stove left on by tenants caused a four-alarm fire Saturday evening that heavily damaged Building 97 at Southpoint Townhouses & Apartments, displaced 54 residents and sent an Amherst police officer to the hospital where he was treated for smoke inhalation.

Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said Monday that investigators with the state Fire Marshal’s office and Amherst Fire Department determined that the fire began in Unit 97G, on the third floor next to the rear staircase, when tenants left a pot on a stove that was not turned off. Nelson said the fire then went up the wall and into the ceiling.

Dozens of residents scattered from their homes and watched as flames shot through the roof of Building 97 and a cloud of white smoke filled the sky.

“Not once have I seen something like this,” said Stephanie Coan, a resident of another building in the 182-unit complex at 266 East Hadley Road.

Scores of firefighters from 13 communities responded to help battle the blaze, which was reported at 4:55 p.m., and to provide coverage at fire stations in Amherst and Northampton. They assisted a total of 20 Amherst firefighters who were called to the scene.

The fire burned through the roof of Building 97, and its residents as well as those in three other attached buildings were evacuated. According to the Amherst Fire Department, no residents were injured.

However, three Amherst firefighters were treated at the scene for heat stress, and the Fire Department reported that a police officer was taken to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton suffering from smoke inhalation while he was assisting his partner from the building. The unnamed officer was treated and released.

Some residents left their buildings before the evacuation was ordered by authorities. Building 97 resident David Jardine said he stepped outside after smelling smoke to find flames coming from the roof. He went back inside to tell his wife, Colleen, that they needed to get out, and then returned again to get their two cats, Bear and Shirley. Since they are normally indoor cats, the Jardines kept them in their car with the windows down while firefighters fought the blaze, and were able to get them into pet carriers later in the evening.

“We hope nobody calls our house looking for us,” Colleen Jardine said. She said she had been working on a crocheting project when the fire broke out.

Benjamin Durfee, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts this spring, said he left his apartment in Building 95 before it was evacuated. He said he was at home when he noticed what “smelled like a campfire,” and looked outside to see smoke coming from the building. At that point, he packed a small bag, and put his cat, Whitacre, in a pet carrier before leaving.

Once he got out, he said, authorities did not allow him back inside. He sat on the grass by the Southpoint tennis courts with fellow residents and Whitacre, who rested calmly in his carrier among some towels.

On Sunday, residents of the evacuated buildings returned to gather belongings that could be salvaged from inside. Police officers looked on to prevent theft. Items on the lawn included a mattress, a mirror, a plant and some chairs.

Colin Buley, a resident of Building 97 and a senior at Hampshire College, was among those loading items into vehicles early Sunday evening. He said he has been assigned to stay in Building 109, where there are vacant apartments.

Most of the items in his unit had water damage as opposed to fire damage, he said, but some of his furniture now has a strong odor of smoke. He has not yet been able to test his electronics, he said.

The night before, he had been mostly worried about his cat, Willow, who was inside at the time of the fire. At around 10:30 p.m. Saturday, he recalled, a firefighter escorted him into his unit, where he found Willow alive under a bed. She is now staying with his family, he said.

Early Saturday evening, fire trucks from surrounding communities poured into Southpoint, which is off Route 116 south of downtown. By the time the fire was brought under control at 7:45 p.m., firefighters from Amherst, Northampton, Easthampton, Hadley, Belchertown, Pelham, South Hadley, Shutesbury, Leverett and the Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee were all at the scene.

Coan, who has lived at Southpoint for six years, said she has heard of similar incidents happening in large cities, but “never in Amherst.” Her building was not among those evacuated.

Other residents did not notice anything was wrong until they were evacuated. Building 99 resident Jamie Kimmel, a junior at UMass, said she learned of the fire when a police officer knocked on her door and told her she needed to get out.

Just before 8:30 p.m., residents from the evacuated apartments filed into the rental office at Southpoint to sort out housing and transportation for the night.

Red Cross volunteers also responded to offer assistance in finding housing for the 36 displaced families, which consist of 46 adults and eight children.

The Red Cross has given emergency funds to 18 of the displaced families for expenses such as food and transportation, according to a statement from the organization issued on Sunday. Five families received funds for hotel stays. Others found shelter with friends and family or in other units within the complex.

Southpoint Townhouses & Apartments is owned by Ronex Corp. Staff at the Southpoint Rental Office refused to comment or provide further information Sunday afternoon.

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.