A fast-moving fire sent residents stumbling and choking into smoke-filled hallways Monday as firefighters, hampered by frozen hydrants, worked to clear people from the apartment building and contain the blaze.
All 28 tenants escaped; five were treated for smoke inhalation, fire officials said. The fire consumed the building at 446 Howe Ave., which included 24 apartments and several businesses, and it was torn down Monday.
The initial call came in about 11:30 p.m. as a broken water line, Assistant Fire Chief Nick Verdicchio said. Firefighters found a flooded basement and were searching for the source of the leak when they saw smoke and then flames, Verdicchio said.
John Barber, 58, who lived on the third floor, said he was half asleep when he heard a neighbor shouting, "Johnny! Fire! Johnny! Get out!"
The hall was filled with smoke, Barber said, and he was choking and blinded. He fell down a flight of stairs from the third to the second floor.
"The smoke was overwhelming. I couldn't see," Barber said. He was trying to feel his way toward the exit when he felt a hand on his shoulder, guiding him outside. Barber said he has not learned the name of his rescuer.
Fire investigators were trying to determine the cause of the blaze. The building in the heart of downtown housed several storefront businesses, including a convenience store, a barbershop and a florist. An adjacent commercial building with two restaurants was heavily damaged.
Verdicchio described "controlled chaos" as firefighters evacuated the building.
"People were rushing out, we were rushing in, knocking on doors. Pulling people out. Some people had to be picked off by the ladder trucks. It was quite an extensive rescue operation," he said.
The first firefighters on the scene sent a radio dispatch that multiple people were trapped on the third floor, and fire commanders declared a mass casualty response. A half-dozen hospitals were put on alert to expect multiple injuries, and crews from Seymour, Ansonia, Derby, Orange and other towns were called to help. In all, nine departments responded, Fire Marshal Jim Tortora said.
The blaze raged out of control for more than an hour and a half. Flames ate through the roof and walls, and commanders twice ordered firefighters to evacuate. Emergency crews set up a triage area behind the building, and more than a half dozen ambulances were dispatched.
At least two tanker trucks were called in as firefighters struggled to get pressure from nearby hydrants. Two hydrants were frozen and a water main broke. A gas line also ruptured at one point, feeding the blaze before it was fixed.
During the worst of the fire, an engine was sent to connect a line to a hydrant on the Derby side of the Housatonic River and link a series of hoses across Bridge Street to reach the scene.
At 1:27 a.m., commanders sent out an urgent order for all crews to back away from the building because of an imminent collapse. Minutes later, part of the structure collapsed. At 1:37 a.m., the fire department's radio frequencies again filled with orders for all firefighters to retreat because walls were leaning and commanders expected more of the structure would collapse. Another alert went out at 2:01 a.m. when the rest of the building was about to fold, and moments later, dispatchers did a radio roll call to ensure all the emergency crews were safe.
The building was equipped with a sprinkler system, Verdicchio said, but apparently, the initial water break was in that system. He said fire officials were trying to determine if a fire activated the sprinkler system, which then sprung a leak, or whether the system broke before the fire started.
Verdicchio called the battle to clear tenants from the building and stop the blaze from spreading to adjacent structures "an outstanding effort by all involved."
The American Red Cross was helping displaced tenants with food and clothing. Many residents were able to make alternate housing arrangements, Red Cross spokesman Paul Shipman said. Also, Verdicchio said, Shelton residents and business owners were donating food, gift cards and other necessities to the displaced residents.
"People have been fantastic, which is really great because these people lost everything," Verdicchio said. "They left with the clothes on their backs."
Written by Don Stacom and Jesse Leavenworth