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Amherst apartment fire displaces residents, injures woman

  • Ann Whalen Apartments, located at 33 Kellogg Ave. in Amherst. GOOGLE MAPS

  • Smoke damage at Ann Whalen Apartments in Amherst after an early-morning fire, Nov. 8, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pedro Ayala Jr. talks about the fire in the Ann Whalen apartments where he lives in Amherst Thursday morning. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fire in apartment at Ann Whalen Apartments, courtesy of Amherst Fire Department. —Submitted Photo

  • Rafael Galarza, a resident at the Ann Whalen apartments gets a cup of Coffee with Sue Dierks, a volunteer, after the fire Thursday morning. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pedro Ayala Jr. talks about the fire in the Ann Whalen apartments where he lives in Amherst Thursday morning. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fire at Ann Whalen apartments on fourth floor Thursday morning. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fire at Ann Whalen apartments on fourth floor Thursday morning. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writer
Thursday, November 08, 2018

AMHERST – An early Thursday morning fire that injured an elderly woman and displaced about 60 residents at the Ann Whalen Apartments building in downtown Amherst is being blamed on the careless disposal of smoking materials, according to the Amherst Fire Department.

Firefighters responded at 3:44 a.m. to a fire alarm sounding at the five-story apartment building at 33 Kellogg Ave., operated by the Amherst Housing Authority, said Assistant Fire Chief Lindsay Stromgren. Crews from the Central Fire Station, which is just a few hundred feet from the building, could see flames coming out from the sliding glass door, Stromgren said.

The apartment was found fully engulfed when firefighters got there, and, after getting the initial box alarm, a second alarm was sounded to bring in mutual aid.

Northampton, Hadley and Pelham firefighters responded to assist the initial Amherst crews on scene, along with a Belchertown ambulance, and South Hadley firefighters provided station coverage and South County EMS handled an unrelated medical call. 

Firefighters immediately helped evacuate all the tenants, some of whom have mobility issues, getting them safely from the building.

Stromgren said the woman who was injured, the lone occupant of the apartment, was brought to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. She was then brought by LifeFlight helicopter to a Boston hospital, Stromgren said.

Damage was mostly confined to the apartment where the fire began, but one or two other apartments are also not habitable.

“Fortunately because of the construction it didn’t compromise the structure or spread,” Stromgren said. There is no sprinkler system in the building.

Stromgren said the heavily damaged apartment will have to be stripped down and some hallways will have to be repainted. Water may also have to be cleaned up in apartments on lower floors.

The fire was jointly investigated by the Amherst Fire and Police Departments and State Police assigned to the Office of the State Fire Marshal. The careless disposal of smoking materials happened even though Amherst Housing Authority properties have been smoke free since 2014.

Tenants in the east wing returned at 2 p.m., while others in the west wing closer to the fire scene could go back at 6 p.m. and after the fire detection system was put back online. They said the fire was unexpected.

Pedro Ayala Jr., who was at the Bangs Community Center where an emergency shelter opened up about an hour after the fire was reported, said he heard the alarms sounding and then 10 minutes later a neighbor knocked on his door. Upon opening it, he noticed the smoke filling the hallway.

“When I saw the smoke I said, ‘woah,’” Ayala said, adding that didn’t see the actual flames coming out from the apartment until he was outside.

Linda Clifford said she was awoken by the alarm. “I heard the alarm go off and I said, ‘I got to get out,’” Clifford said. She and her daughter, who was staying for the night in advance of a day of shopping they had planned, safely evacuated.

The priority for Clifford upon returning, she said, would be to check on the welfare of her cat, Pretty Lady. “I’m going to take it easy this afternoon and hope to take a long nap,” Clifford said.

Alan Root, the longest tenured resident at 35 years, said many residents have mobility issues, and he appreciated the speed with which firefighters and police officers got to the building to assist.

“They really got people out of the building fast,” Root said.

But he worries that some with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, could be affected by the smoke. “How it affects them is not clear,” Root said.

Amherst Housing Authority Executive Director Pamela Rogers said the evacuation was remarkable.

“We are very grateful to the town and the fire and police departments,” Rogers said. “The fire department did a great job, it was amazing how they were able to contain the fire to that apartment.”

Within an hour, most of her staff was on the job assisting tenants, she said.

Staff worked with firefighters and police officers to get important items from the apartments for the tenants, including medication, eyeglasses and hearing aids, and clothing, as well as to check on the pets that had to stay behind.

Personal care attendants who work with tenants were also notified about the incident.

Senior Center Director Nancy Pagano said she took a call from Town Manager Paul Bockelman to get the Bangs Center opened and prepared for American Red Cross to set up. 

Several other entities helped out, as well, with the University of Massachusetts providing muffins and other breakfast items, coffee and pastries from Henion Bakery, more coffee from Dean’s Beans, fruit and bagels from Whole Foods Market and treats from Insomnia Cookies. Highland Valley Elder Services was preparing at least 70 meals for lunch.

“There’s a lot of great volunteering going on,” Pagano said. “A lot of people jumped right in.”

Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek was providing regular updates to those gathered in the Bangs Center cafeteria and called the response “a great team effort.”

“We’ll be with you here all morning until we get you back into your units,” Ziomek told the tenants.

At times, he and others, including senior center social worker Helen MacMellon, met in small groups with tenants, including having Spanish interpreters available.

Ann Whalen tenant Bill Lovett said he appreciated the care the town provided to tenants. 

Ayala, too, had nothing but praise. “They’ve been really good,” Ayala said. “I can be a critic, but they’ve been really good.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.