PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Some college students who lived in triple decker homes on Eaton Street in Providence that caught fire Thursday afternoon were able to salvage some belongings Friday, while neighbors who saw the buildings burn say they feel for those who have been displaced from their homes.
The fire started at about 2 p.m. Thursday, with one triple decker catching fire first, and the wind helping to spread the flames to the buildings on either side of it. City officials said a dozen firefighters were hurt, including Capt. Joseph Fontaine, who is being treated for cyanide exposure.
Matt Dekoeyer, who lives down the street, wasn’t affected, but said Friday he knows the 19 Providence College students who were.
“[It’s] very, very scary for them… I know all the kids who were affected, and I just felt really bad,” he said. “Seeing the damage the day after is like, crazy. I couldn’t imagine it,”
Providence College officials said Thursday the affected students lived in the neighboring buildings. As for the main building that burned: “We believe it was vacant, we’re not 100 percent sure about that, but I know that none of our people were in that house,” spokesman Steve Maurano had said.
The flames were big, to say the least, and attracted many onlookers, including Dekoeyer and some friends. “We got down here, and all of a sudden we see the entire street was covered in smoke and engulfed in flames. Two of the main houses were pretty much, like, toast already,” he said.
College officials say they are helping students displaced by the fire, giving them additional housing assistance, books, computers, clothing and whatever they need to get through the semester.
“We’ve had to help individual students from time to time, but not this number of students and not because of something like this,” said Maurano. “The most important thing is that all the students are accounted for and safe.”
The college also has counselors available and is coordinating donations from businesses wanting to help.
Another neighbor, Jasmin Rodriguez, said she’s hoping for the best for the victims: “It’s hard to get the things back, but hopefully they get back on their feet pretty soon. I’m praying for them and hope everything will be good for them.”
The triple-decker where the fire started will have to be torn down altogether, police told Eyewitness News. As of Friday at noon, the other two buildings were boarded up.
The homes on Eaton Street caught fire just hours before another serious fire about three miles away Thursday afternoon, on Laurel Hill Avenue, which displaced 30 people.
Hero officer steps in
Providence Patrol Officer Michelle Tella happened to be in the area and was able to alert the students of the fire.
When she saw the first home on fire, she ran into the neighboring buildings to make sure everyone was out.
“I’m a mother, I have a son in college,” she told Eyewitness News. “It was like being a mother, running to save these children.”
Providence fire officials said one student was in the shower when the flames started.
“There was one student who was in the shower. Had no one alerted the student to that, the outcome could have been a lot different,” said Capt. Kevin Jutras of the Providence Fire Department.
In the end, the three homes were damaged but all of the students made it out safely.
“Kudos to her [Officer Tella] and her bravery to go in and get those buildings were empty,” Jutras said.
Tella said she isn’t a hero.
“I’m doing the job that I swore to do every day,” she said.
Tella said she commends the works of the firefighters.
Fire officials said the fire was unprecedented and the 45 mph winds fueled the flames.
“That’s what makes this fire different from other responses. Is the speed with which this fire was taking off,” Jutras said.
Annie Shalvey contributed to this report.