” ‘Hold on!’ ” the police officers shouted through the early morning chaos. ” ‘Hold on!’ ”
Above, in what she was certain would be her final minutes of life, Fri Annoh and her husband faced a terrifying choice.
They could choke down their panic, along with the deadly smoke filling their third-floor apartment, and will themselves to find a moment’s more patience, or toss their three-year-old daughter, Talia, into the pre-dawn darkness and — they hoped — the hands of the officers waiting three stories below.
“We wanted to see if we could send her out,” Annoh, 36, recalled Friday morning as she looked at the charred hulk of Building 12 at the Fenimore Trace Apartments on Route 2. “I thought I was going to die in there because the fire was really coming fast. … I don’t know if I’m ever going to recover from this.”
With escape into the interior hallway blocked by smoke pouring under a door that was scorching to the touch, Annoh’s husband, Benny Harrison, cast aside the window screen in a bedroom window, wrapped Talia in a blanket and thrust her out in search of some semblance of breathable air while, a few windows away, flames roared from a neighboring apartment.
“The father was about to throw (her) out to the cops,” Watervliet Fire Chief Scott Skinner said. “They said, ‘Hold on! Hold on!'”
The officers begged the panicked couple to wait a little longer until firefighters, led by rookie Watervliet firefighter Vinny Ellis, reached them with an extension ladder and pulled the family to safety, Skinner said.
Nearly simultaneously, Troy firefighters led by Rescue Squad Captain Tom Miter and firefighters John Clayton and Joe Coonan used ladders to scoop several others from the third floor in the rear of the building, Troy Fire Chief Tom Garrett said.
The total number of people pulled to safety was said to be either five or six.
“It was an intense situation for the first 10 minutes,” Skinner said, adding that firefighters couldn’t even begin to fight the flames until everyone in the windows had been reached. “We were spending all our time rescuing people.”
All told, six people were treated for injuries, including smoke inhalation and a minor burn to one resident’s forearm, Skinner said. None of the injuries was believed to be serious.
Two-dozen people in 21 apartments — including those in adjoining building No. 11, which sustained heavy water damage — were at least temporarily displaced by the blaze and were being aided by the American Red Cross of Northeastern New York.
With the roof of No. 12 largely gone and parts of the third floor collapsing into the second, Skinner said demolition of the building — one of a dozen in the 144-unit complex owned by Tri-City Rentals — began Friday afternoon.
Skinner said firefighters stopped the flames’ advance on No. 11 by cutting a trench in a shared roof. Nearby Building No. 10 was also evacuated.
The fire is believed to have started in an occupied third-floor apartment in the front of the building and spread quickly through an attic space known as a cockloft, Skinner said. He said the tenant told investigators he was asleep when the fire broke out. Officials have no reason to believe the origin was suspicious, but due to the severe damage the cause will be officially listed as undetermined, Skinner said.
The first hint of trouble came at 3:23 a.m., when a passerby called 911 and reported hearing some kind of alarm in the area, Skinner said. But when a police officer responded, nothing could be found.
Less than 10 minutes later, another more urgent call reported the blaze and people trapped inside, Skinner said.
While Annoh was awakened by her smoke alarm, three floors below, Aniece Lembo had just drifted off to sleep as firefighters began banging on her door around 3:40 a.m.
“I hadn’t even had smoke in my apartment yet,” said Lembo, a 49-year-old motor coach driver who has lived in the complex for 15 years. “I didn’t even smell anything.”
Still dazed hours after the blaze that nearly claimed his family, Harrison stood in the parking lot and thanked the exhausted rescuers as he looked at the charred remains of his home and others hoped they could retrieve at least some of their belongings.
“This,” the fire chief told him, pointing to the still-steaming window he’d been pulled from, “it’s all stuff.”
Minutes later, Harrison still stood there, struggling describe the events
“To God be the glory,” he said.