BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — It was just after 6 a.m. New Year’s Eve when Marisol Melendez looked out the window of her Charles Street apartment and saw flames licking up the sides of the large, gray apartment complex next door.
“I saw that fire and I grabbed the urn with my father’s ashes and ran out to my car with it. That’s all I cared about,” Melendez said as Bridgeport firefighters continued to fight the smoldering blaze six hours later.
“That and my birds,” she said. “I’ve got six finches. They’re still in there, and I hope they’re OK. It was smoky.
“But these poor people? They lost everything. And just after Christmas.”
The crumbling complex at 215 Charles St. contained 36 apartments. Emergency workers said some units may have been vacant, and there may have been squatters on the property.
One man was rescued from an upper apartment, but there were no casualties, said West Side Fire Battalion Chief Michael Caldaroni.
More than 100 people were left homeless.
It took seven engines, four ladder companies and a rescue vehicle and help from Fairfield, Milford and Stratford fire departments to contain the blaze. At midday, the fire, which began in the open garage under the complex, was still burning in the walls.
Firefighters might be on the scene into Friday, Caldaroni said.
Those displaced — from families with small children to senior citizens, some still wearing nightgowns and pajamas — were taken to Geraldine Johnson School on North Avenue. There, the Red Cross, Social Services and members of the city’s Community Emergency Response Team offered help, said Jeannette Herron, a member of CERT and the City Council.
“It’s devastating,” she said. “I’ll stay here until the last resident is taken care of.”
City workers reached out to landlords who might have vacant space and explained the rental assistance programs to the displaced families, said Iris Molina, director of Social Services. The city will pay security deposits for the victims, she said.
Social Services also made calls to refill crucial prescriptions and replace food stamps.
“We can call the state and help with those things they really need,” Molina said.
Cultrilliah Bufford, who lives next door, was already awake when she heard the fire alarms.
“I looked out and I saw five people come out the front door and dark smoke coming from the garage area,” said the mother of two. “I told my husband, ‘Get the kids up. We’ve got to get out of here.’
“The fire just, like, billowed out of the windows. I heard explosions. You can see it’s all plywood so it went up like a matchbook.”
Bufford and her husband, Jermaine, were waiting for fire personnel to let them back inside to get essentials before they looked for a place to stay.
“They told us we can’t stay here,” said Jermaine Bufford. “They had to cut the lines. No lights, no gas, no heat.”
Mayor Joseph P. Ganim put out a plea for donations, asking for adult and children’s clothing, food, pet food and toys to replace lost holiday gifts. To make a donation, call Scott Appleby at Bridgeport’s Emergency Operations Center at 203-579-3829 or the Mayor’s Office at 203-337-2341.
Monetary donations may be sent to the Red Cross, c/o Charles Street Fire, 158 Brooklawn Ave., Bridgeport, CT 06604
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