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A fast-moving fire ravaged a three-story apartment building before dawn Thursday, killing four adults and three children, forcing tenants to jump or hand their children to safety, and leading to dramatic rescues from upper floors.
Authorities are looking into witness reports that the sound of exploding fireworks preceded the blaze, as well as a man's claim that a brother who died in the fire kept fireworks in his apartment.
The victims were all found in units on the top floor of the building, which was just down the street from a fire station. Nine people were hospitalized with injuries not considered life threatening.
“Today is a tragic day in the city of Lowell,” Mayor Rodney Elliott said at a press briefing outside the Branch Street building. “The entire city mourns the losses.”
Authorities say 48 people lived in the building, which had a liquor store on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors. The roof entirely burned away, with the outer walls charred and the siding melted. Firefighters had to evacuate at one point as the roof gave way.
Sar Soth, 43, escaped from a third-floor apartment along with her two stepchildren and two adults by climbing through a window and down a firefighters' ladder. She was having trouble sleeping when she heard a boom, saw fire outside and started screaming for the others to wake.
Her stepdaughter, Soriha Proeung, 11, said she yelled for firefighters to bring the ladder to their window.
"We all felt like in five minutes we were going to die," Proeung said. "I couldn't see. My eyes, my chest burned. ... I just wanted to get saved."
Authorities have not identified the victims. But Thearan Sak said his brother, Torn Sak, and his brother's longtime girlfriend, Ellen Vuong, died, along with three of their five children: a 7-year-old girl, a 9-year-old boy and a 12-year-old boy. The couple had two other sons who escaped the fire, he said.
Sak said his mother called him and told him his brother's building was on fire.
"I went to the scene hoping that everybody made it out, but when I pulled up ... I only saw two of my nephews," he said.
His brother, he said, enjoyed fireworks and had some stored in his apartment.
Neighbor Sarin Chun said she awoke to screams and saw someone hand a child out a window to another person on the street. Witnesses said tenants jumped out of windows.
A police officer on routine patrol was the first to report the fire, while several tenants ran about 100 yards down the street to a fire station to sound the alarm, Fire Chief Edward Pitta said. But the building was fully involved by the time firefighters arrived.
The building did not have a sprinkler system but was not required to, Pitta said.
“Whether it would have made a difference or not is speculation that we should not enter into at this time,” he said, “but clearly sprinklers are a life-saving tool, and we all know that.”
The building did have an alarm system, and whether that was working will be part of the investigation.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said she is "deeply concerned" by reports from witnesses that no fire alarms sounded.
State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said authorities are looking into the reports of fireworks but have not determined where or how the blaze started.
The Red Cross is assisting displaced tenants and the city is accepting donations of clothing and other essentials, Elliott said. A relief fund has been set up at the Jeanne D'Arc Credit Union in the city.
According to Coan, 1994 was the last time a fire in Massachusetts took seven lives. It was Christmas Eve in North Attleboro.
With reporting by The Associated Press and the WBUR Newsroom