LOWELL (CBS) – Seven people were killed in a fire that tore through a three-story apartment building in Lowell on Thursday.
A passing police officer spotted the fire around 4 a.m. and reported it. The building at 73-81 Branch Street was already engulfed by heavy flames when firefighters arrived.
The three-story building houses several apartments, as well as a liquor store on the first floor.
Lowell’s Fire Chief Edward Pitta says the victims were all found in two separate units on third floor. The victims included four adults and three children.
A relative identified five of the victims as Ellen Vuong, Torn Sak, and three of their five children. He says the other two children escaped uninjured.
A man identifying himself as the boyfriend of Tina Christakos says she also died on the third floor.
“She was lovable and fun,” Chin Bun said of Christakos. “She had a lot of friends like her.”
A man told WBZ-TV that his friend, a man named Bobby Downs, is also among the missing.
“He lives in the third floor, rear part of the building where the worst part of the fire is,” Winters Otero said. “I don’t know if he’s one of the casualties.”
State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan called it “a horrible day in the city of Lowell.”
“I cannot recall in recent times responding to a fire with this many fatalities,” he added.
Thursday’s blaze marks the state’s deadliest since a 1994 fire in North Attleborough that claimed the lives of an entire family of six and one of the children’s friends who had slept over at the house that night.
In addition to those killed, nine people were transported to Lowell General Hospital and treated for non-life threatening injuries.
Witnesses told WBZ-TV’s David Robichaud that people were tossing babies out of second floor windows in an effort to get them to safety. Fire officials say there were people jumping from windows when they arrived. Arriving firefighters rescued five people from windows.
Early Thursday morning, Lowell resident Rothe Proeung was among those at the scene anxiously awaiting word from family members.
His two children were sleeping at their mother’s apartment last night, which is in the building.
Proeung says he received a call at 4 a.m. about the fire.
“At the time I was thinking about my kids, where are my kids. Are they dead? Are they alive?” he told WBZ-TV.
Proeung says he found his two children outside the building. Both had suffered injuries but are expected to be okay. They were among those taken to the hospital.
WBZ-TV’s Michael Rosenfield reports
Fire Marshal Coan says the bodies of the victims were removed from the building by Thursday afternoon. Officials are now working to determine the cause of the blaze. Fire crews say the building structure is compromised, so the investigation could take a long time. Coan says he will work with District Attorney’s office to examine the entire building.
Watch: Raw Video Of Lowell Fire (Courtesy: Sarin Chun)
Part of the investigation will focus on the fire alarm system. Records at Lowell City Hall show the smoke alarms were operating properly during an inspection in March 2013. But the WBZ-TV I-Team reports that police and fire crews responding to the blaze did not hear any alarms going off inside the building.
There were also reports from witnesses of fireworks or explosions going off inside the building, as well as information from Sak’s relative that he had a large number of fireworks inside the apartment. Ryan says investigators will examine those reports as well.
In all, officials believe 50 people lived in the apartment building. It’s unclear how many were inside at the time of the fire.
Officials did say that they don’t believe the building built in 1890 had sprinklers and that they weren’t required.
Red Cross is assisting the victims. The city of Lowell has announced a relief fund has been set up as well.