Easthampton man’s quick thinking saves wheelchair user from burning building

  • Eliza Galotti talks about the fire at 99 East street in Easthampton on Sunday which she and her husband along with other neighbors responded to. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paul Galotti talks about his experience of carrying out a resident from a fire at 99 East St. in Easthampton on Sunday. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paul and Eliza Galotti talk about Sunday’s fire at 99 East St. in Easthampton, which they along with other neighbors responded to. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paul Galotti talks about his experience of carrying out a resident from a fire at 99 East St. in Easthampton on Sunday. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paul Galotti talks about his experience of carrying out a resident from a fire at 99 East St. in Easthampton on Sunday. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fire damage can be seen on the exterior of 99 East St. in Easthampton. Sunday’s fire, caused by careless disposal of smoking materials, displaced residents of the multi-unit building. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/19/2022 7:54:31 PM
Modified: 5/19/2022 7:52:45 PM

EASTHAMPTON — After fire broke out Sunday evening at a multi-unit building on East Street, residents sprang into action to help their neighbors, with one entering the smoke-filled dwelling and carrying an occupant, who uses a wheelchair, out to safety.

Those efforts haven’t stopped, as neighbor Paul Galotti and his fellow East Street neighborhood have organized a GoFundMe fundraiser for the displaced families of 97-99 East St. fire. In less than three days, the fundraiser has generated nearly $3,000.

“Everyone is safe, but we didn’t know if and when they’d be able to come back home, so this was something else we could do,” Galotti said.

The American Red Cross has been working with residents to help find temporary housing.

On Sunday evening, Galotti was watching the end of the Celtics game when his wife, Eliza, came to tell him she could hear popping noises and had seen smoke coming from their neighbors’ home at 97-99 East St.

Paul Galotti, who works as an environmental coordinator for Eversource, said his wife often “jumps over the noise of a cricket,” but when she mentioned hearing popping noises, he dashed out the door. In his line of work, Galotti said, he tends to be hyper-aware of risk and has dealt with transformers malfunctioning and catching fire. He hadn’t, however, entered a burning building and rescued someone.

“I thought this could be a real emergency and ran over as fast as I could,” he said.

In the meantime, Eliza Galotti dialed 911, but said she wasn’t able to get through to a dispatcher. Panicked, she kept calling until a dispatcher responded, saying that another caller had notified the Fire Department and that they were on their way.

Another neighbor, Paul Gillio, watched as Galotti was screaming as he dashed across the street.

“I followed out the side of our house and saw fire coming out of the house next door … there was black smoke and flames coming out of one basement window and I didn’t see him anywhere, so I shouted his name. In the moment, I was primarily concerned with finding him. It didn’t appear that there was anyone coming out of the building, so I didn’t think anyone was home,” said Gillio.

Seeing cars in the driveway, Galotti recalled being surprised he didn’t see anyone exiting or standing outside of the building. As Gillio yelled Galotti’s name, Galotti banged on doors and windows of the building, screaming for them to get out. Along the way, he turned some of the door knobs to see if any were unlocked and initially struggled to gain entry.

When he tried the door on the front right side of the building, he was able to get inside and continued to yell, pausing to hear if anyone would respond back.

“No one answered, so I went back through a second time. I was thinking that maybe I didn’t hit them and then I heard a voice from the lower level,” he said. “When I opened the door, it was a wall of black smoke and I was just … horrified.”

The voice that responded was from a resident of the building, who indicated that he was in a wheelchair. The individual usually used another walk-out entrance in the back, but that was covered in flames.

Galotti made an initial attempt to go into the apartment, but was overcome by smoke and retreated outside after 45 seconds.

He looked up and down the street to see if the Fire Department had arrived and they hadn’t.

Galotti then covered his nose and mouth with the collar of his T-shirt and walked into the smoke-filled room.

“In the moment, it felt like a really long time had passed, but I’m sure it was like a minute or two,” he said. “So, I went back and asked him to tell me where in the room he was, and I felt my way to him and found him. It’s hard to verbalize what I could see and felt, but it was like a matter of seconds to carry him out.”

Gillio spotted Galotti coming out of the lower-level apartment with the resident over his shoulder.

“I thought it was incredibly brave of him to go down there in that circumstance and help that guy,” said Gillio.

The two learned from the resident that there might be people home in the back of the building. So while Galotti stayed with the man he had rescued, Gillio went around the back of the building and tried other doors at the back until he found a sliding door.

“I slid the door open and shouted and heard some voices, and a woman and her teenage son came out. I don’t know if they were aware that there was a fire, but they seemed genuinely shocked at how bad the fire was at that point,” said Gillio.

Initially, the residents wanted to go back in to find their cat, but Gillio advised them against it out of caution, and they agreed to exit. The cat has since been found and is doing well. 

Soon after the city’s police and fire departments arrived, it began to rain and Gillio and his wife, Sarah, opened up their home, offering shelter and water to their neighbors. Together, Gillio and Galotti helped ease the man that used a wheelchair into a lawn chair from the shed and carried him to Gillio’s house.

“It wasn’t anything special,” said Gillio. “It was just neighbors watching out for neighbors.”

Smoking materials

The multifamily dwelling sustained significant water and smoke damage, Fire Chief Christopher Norris said. He is still unsure of the financial cost of the damage, but is working with the city’s building inspector to determine if and when the occupants can return. 

Through a joint investigation by the Easthampton fire and police departments, and state troopers assigned to the state fire marshal’s office, it was determined that the fire was “accidental in nature and was caused by the improper disposal of smoking materials in the area of a futon,” according to Jake Wark, spokesman for the fire marshal’s office.

“While everyone made it out of this fire, smoking materials are the leading cause of fatal fires in Massachusetts,” Wark said. “If you still smoke, please use a sturdy ashtray with water or sand and be sure to put it out, all the way, every time.”

Norris described the fire as labor intensive. In addition to Easthampton firefighters, Northampton, Southampton, Holyoke, Westover Air Reserve Base and Barnes Air National Guard fire departments responded to the fire.

Although firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze relatively quickly, the five-unit dwelling contained several “hidden void spaces,” which needed to be opened and checked to ensure that the fire had not spread.

The building was formerly the Pascommuck School and was originally designed and built by Easthampton resident S.J. Tremblay in 1915 in response to increased village population, according to records from the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Records show that after the school was vacated in the 1940s, it was remodeled with a front shed dormer and taller second-floor addition made of unpainted angled wooden flushboarding.

The day after the fire, Norris said, he learned of the efforts put forth by the East Street neighborhood.

“They did an incredible job,” he said. “And entering a building with the conditions that this had … it says a lot about his character.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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