WATERTOWN, N.Y. — A blaze Friday morning on the first floor of a high-rise for the elderly pumped smoke into upper floors, killing three people out of reach of firefighters' aerial ladders, authorities said. Arson was suspected.
After rescuers evacuated the 15-story Midtown Towers in below-zero cold, 77 residents and two firefighters were taken to Watertown's two hospitals, most for treatment of smoke inhalation. Six residents were listed in critical condition.
"A lot of people were hanging out the upstairs windows screaming," said Bruce Wright of Guilfoyle Ambulance Service Inc. "There was a tremendous amount of flames coming out the front and back end of the building."
Fire Chief Joseph H. Gravelle said a door at the base of the building's stairwell jammed, trapping some residents until it was pried open. Most of the dead and injured were reportedly found in stairwells, he said.
State fire investigators classified the fire as "probable arson," Police Chief Michael J. Hennegan said. He said if this preliminary determination stands, the deaths will be investigated as homicides.
Investigators said the fire started shortly after midnight in a first-floor recreation area of the 20-year-old building, which has 150 apartments.
Gravelle said the fire was contained to the first floor, but that smoke quickly spread throughout the building. He said safety violations helped the fire spread on the first floor--the recreation room's double doors were left open overnight.
One of the dead was found in a hallway and two were found in stairwells on the 12th and 13th floors, beyond reach of the city's aerial ladders.
"There's not a truck in the world that could reach the top of the building," said former Watertown Fire Chief Ronald D. Damon, adding that fire truck ladders reach about eight stories.