An electrical fire badly damaged an apartment building Friday as firefighters battled heat exhaustion and one tenant fought to save his cats.
The man ran back into the burning house and raced to the very top floor to rescue his cats. He came down triumphantly with three of the four, all of which he found while crawling on the floor, choking in thick smoke, unable to see.
The fourth cat leapt from a window — through 15-foot flames — and was hosed down by firefighters. They rushed it to a veterinarian to be treated for smoke inhalation.
Chad Andrews, 24, emerged bleeding from several serious scratches from his battle with the cats, terrified by the fire and the smoke detector alarms, he said.
“Everything was black from smoke. I couldn’t see nothing,” he said. “I was feeling down on the ground, just seeing white specks running around. My cats were going crazy. I got scratches just trying to save the cats, but pain didn’t matter.”
Andrews was one of at least eight tenants living in a small house at 520 Manhattan St. that had been cut into four apartments. The layout was so tight and confusing that firefighters had difficulty reaching each unit, Chief Robert Farstad said. He declined to say whether the layout was a possible code violation, but said it turned out to be a fire hazard.
“It’s all split up in there,” he said. “We had a very difficult time making access.”
Manhattan runs between Van Vranken and Foster avenues.
Investigators determined that the fire began with overloaded circuits, possibly from an air conditioner.
The fire ignited in an addition in the rear right apartment, where a woman was sleeping or resting when the fire broke out, Farstad said.
She was the last to leave the house. As firefighters raced to the scene, the first callers said she was trapped inside. But she got out before they arrived, Farstad said.
She had slight burns and minor smoke inhalation. After speaking with firefighters and walking to a neighbor’s house, she agreed to let paramedics take her to Ellis Hospital for treatment.
The firefighters themselves were being closely watched by paramedics. Within an hour, crews were being rotated out to avoid heat exhaustion. Even without the heat of the fire, the temperature was in the low 90s.
“It’s extremely difficult with this gear on,” Farstad said. “It’s 50 pounds and it’s keeping in the heat. We’re concerned about heat exhaustion.”
Two firefighters had to be treated by paramedics — one for a minor back injury and one for a minor facial injury that may leave a scar. But none of them succumbed to the heat, fire officials said.
Tenants were having difficulty forgiving their downstairs neighbor, who apparently slept through the start of the fire. By the time they realized their building was on fire, flames were licking up the outside of the house, stretching from her window to the top of the second story.
“Flames 15 feet high. How do you not notice? How do you not do something about it?” Andrews said to another tenant.
All of the residents expected to lose all of their belongings. The apartment where the fire started was a total loss, Farstad said, and fire damage was heavy throughout the building.
“Everything I’ve ever worked for, it just burned down to the ground,” Andrews said. “I’m 24. I make minimum wage. I have nowhere to go. All because of someone’s mistake.”
He had just left the house, heading to his job at Five Guys, when he saw the smoke. He turned around and raced back inside for the cats.
“I had to rush back upstairs as fast as I could go. I kicked down every door,” he said.
He took some comfort in the fact that he saved the cats.
“Everything else, it’s just material.”