Good Samaritan killed in Schenectady house fire
Elderly man alerted residents
SCHENECTADY In bed for the night, Urmela Chandrapaul heard a frantic knock at the window.
Someone outside her first-floor apartment at 1461 State St. was trying to alert her.
“He said, ‘Get out of the building, it’s a fire,’ ” Chandrapaul recalled after returning to the scene of a massive fire late Wednesday night. Chandrapaul grabbed her clothes and fled.
“If it wasn’t for that guy, I shouldn’t be standing here talking to you today,” Chandrapaul said. “He saved my life, and I’m very grateful for him.”
The tale of the man at the window was one of several to surface Thursday of individuals helping others as the fire raged. A mother even frantically dropped her two children from the window of a smoke-filled second-story room into the arms of neighbors.
One of the tales, authorities say, ended with the good Samaritan’s death. That man’s full name was not available Thursday, but friends and neighbors said his first name was Frank and he was in his 70s.
Frank lived on the first floor, in the rear of the multi-unit apartment building. His burned body was found in the front of the building’s second floor sometime before 1 p.m. Thursday. The location of his body and the stories told by residents left no doubt in Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett’s mind that the man died trying to help others.
“We have verified that he actually went to another tenant and alerted her as to the fire and enabled her to escape this building,” Bennett said. “It appears that his courage in doing so came at a very, very big price, which was his life.
“You certainly have to give the guy a lot of credit for his character in doing what he did.”
In Chandrapaul’s case, she said she understood the man who knocked on her window was a friend of the man who died.
Six other people were injured in the fire, which was reported about 10:30 p.m. Bennett said three residents suffered injuries, including one man who suffered burns serious enough that doctors wanted to have him transported to the Westchester Medical Center burn clinic but couldn’t because he wasn’t stable enough.
Those on the scene who knew that man said they knew him by the name “Gritty.” They said he too knocked on doors to alert residents to the fire.
Three firefighters also were injured, Bennett said. Two sustained sprained ankles, and another’s shoulder was injured when a ladder fell on it. All three were treated and released.
Firefighters rescued five people from the building when they arrived, Bennett said.
The American Red Cross was helping 19 residents displaced from 12 apartments, it said. Those included 17 adults and two children.
“It could have been a hell of a lot worse,” Bennett said.
Helping keep the toll from getting worse were neighbors Darryl Robertson and Patricia Rand, who live in homes a few doors up Western Parkway from the fire scene. Robertson said he was just about to go to sleep when he heard someone yelling about a fire. Rand, in her own home, at first thought the yelling was from her television.
They both went outside to see a woman in a second-floor window with her two young children.
“She was saying, ‘Help my babies, help my babies,’ ” Rand recalled. “She was screaming.”
Under the window, all Robertson could think of was getting the children safely to the ground. “Just catch the babies, don’t drop the babies,” Robertson recalled of the infant and toddler.
“She dropped both her daughters out the window to me, and we just wrapped them up and brought them in [a nearby] house.”
With the children safely out, the woman then dropped from the window to escape, they recalled. “I think she was more shocked than anything else,” Robertson said.
The woman’s boyfriend was still inside the apartment, hesitant to jump. He was pulled out by firefighters with a ladder.
Bennett commended the firefighters who responded for getting residents out and attacking the fire the way they did. “That’s a heavy lift,” Bennett said. “They’re good.”
The investigation into how the fire started was still in its early stages Thursday, Bennett said. City fire investigators were getting assistance from the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control, as well as the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Investigators believe the fire started somewhere in the rear of the building, Bennett said. To get investigators into the heavily damaged structure, Bennett said weight from the upper floors was removed with heavy equipment to make it safer.
“There’s simply so much damage at this point that we’re not able to make a determination either way until we examine, to the best of our ability, each section of the house,” Bennett said.
The building could be demolished as early as Saturday, Bennett said. As they go, though, they will watch to ensure no other remains are found. With the discovery of the man’s body, though, everyone who lived in the apartment building was accounted for, Bennett said.
“It’s a very slow process,” he said. “We can’t overlook anything.”
The man’s death is the second by fire in the city this year. In January an 80-year-old woman was killed in a Foster Avenue apartment house in a fire blamed on smoking.
Bennett was unsure when a positive identification of Wednesday’s fire victim would be made. They believe they know who it is, but that identification is expected to come through dental records. They were working to locate those Thursday afternoon.
One man at the scene Thursday said he knew several of the people in the building, including the victim. When he heard what Frank is believed to have done, the man, who declined to give his name, said, “I’m not surprised, I’m not surprised.”
Douge Cherry said he just recently moved from the building and called Frank a good guy. He said he knew the seriously injured man, Gritty, better.
“I’m trying to find out what hospital he’s in now,” Cherry said.
Chandrapaul, the woman saved by the knock at the window, returned Thursday afternoon to see if anything from her apartment could be salvaged. She’d just moved into the first-floor apartment two months ago and hoped to salvage a sewing machine and a cart of belongings.
After speaking with firefighters, though, she was told recovering items was not possible. The second floor had collapsed into her apartment.
“I’m still shaking,” she said at the scene, “but fine.”