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Lawrence Fire Under Investigation

As many as 200 Lawrence residents are looking for a new place to live after a fire yesterday tore through their neighborhood.

Investigators say the blaze started in a nightclub under renovation. They have labeled the cause "suspicious."

BEBINGER: Zulma Leon was out of bed before she heard the first wail of a siren.

LEON: The crack of the wood woke us up. I look out the window and there was a big fire. It's like a nightmare, the fire was pretty, pretty big.

BEBINGER: Leon grabbed a coat, woke her neighbors and raced outside. She waited, in the bitter cold, watching firefighters drench her house to protect it from leaping flames. Leon does not know what's left of her apartment.

Down the street, Carol Sutherland was just arriving for work at Hafner's gas station.

SUTHERLAND: It just looked like a war zone, flames shooting in the air, smoke, with all these vehicles around...it was scary.
TAKVORIAN: Within 2-3 minutes, we had 5 buildings that were fully involved, that gives you an idea of what kind of speed at which this fire was spread.

Lawrence Fire Chief Peter Takvorian says the fire started in a nightclub closed for renovation... where walls that were just studs provided easy fuel. Swift winds carried the flames to 3 Habitat for Humanity projects, a group home for mentally retarded adults...and eventually 38 apartments. Takvorian says there is reason to suspect the fire was set.

TAKVORIAN: It has to be suspicious it was an unoccupied building where it started.

BEBINGER: The club owner, Geraldo Torres, tells the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, that fire could not have started accidentally because he turns off the power every night.

Arson is painful subject for Lawrence residents who lived through or have heard about a wave of attacks that began in the 1980s. By the early 1990s, Lawrence had more fires labeled arson than any other U-S city its size. Mayor Michael Sullivan says he's confident that this fire, if it arson, is not part of a new wave.

SULLIVAN: One year we had over 200 fires like this and it lead to a lot of abandonment. So we don't think it will ever go back to that because we're smarter, we learned from that, be that's certainly a thought that we work on every day.

BEBINGER: Sullivan says Lawrence is working hard, for example, to track the rising number of foreclosures and monitor unoccupied homes. But for some residents, this fire, on top of the foreclosures and the threat of more municipal layoffs, is demoralizing. The Lawrence City Council meets tonight to consider a new tax rate that will determine whether more layoffs, including firefighters, will be needed. Matthew Brien worries about that as he watches firefighter shoot water into a triple-decker his father owns.

BRIEN: I mean the city's in a budget crisis now and we can't seem to get things right. But they're resilient, people in this city are, and I'm sure they'll come back.

BEBINGER: Janette Ayala and Louis Taveres say they'll go wherever they can find safe, affordable housing. The couple fled their 3rd floor apartment with their 2 toddlers and nothing else just over 24 hours ago. Ayala who is pregnant, looks dazed, but calm when I ask what she plans to do now.

AYALA AND TAVERES: Be strong and move on, it's a struggle. It's going to be a big struggle, but hoping to god that everything goes good. Everybody got saved, you know, that's a miracle.

BEBINGER: Families in 38 apartments fled a fast moving fire in the middle of a cold, cold night...and only one minor injury is reported. Governor Deval Patrick and other state leaders paid tribute yesterday to firefighters from Lawrence and 12 other communities who climbed icy ladders with subzero winds in their faces to put out the blaze. They had help...an ambulance driver who happened to be in the area reported the fire before it spread. Still, there are about 200 people whose homes were destroyed. Lawrence Mayor Sullivan has called a meeting this morning with local and state housing agency leaders to map out an assistance plan.

This program aired on January 22, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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