Heavy smoke, flames and screaming was what met Officer Walter Varey in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 10 when he stepped inside a home in Lowell that had become the scene of a massive three-alarm blaze.
Varey was the first police officer early Wednesday to arrive at 98 Westford St., the building where the fire erupted, later claiming the life of an elderly man, injuring three others and leaving more than two dozen residents without a home.
When police got to the home at 3:13 a.m., there were several people inside the building and some rushing out of it. What ensued was a harrowing series of events.
The officer could hear screams coming from the second floor of the home and rushed upstairs, where he was forced to crawl due to the suffocating smoke while he called out for signs of life. Varey soon discovered a man, a woman and their child, according to authorities.
He carried the child downstairs to safety and then returned to the second floor to save the parents, all while battling heavy smoke matched by intense heat, officials said.
“Although he was only able to see about 6 inches ahead, Officer Varey was able to assist both adults out of the building before being overcome by smoke and having to be assisted out by Officers Andres Bolivar and Matthew Trani,” read a statement from the Office of the State Fire Marshal, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office and the Lowell Police and Fire Departments.
While Varey was saving the family inside the home, three of his colleagues from the Lowell Police Department were in the midst of their own rescue outside the building.
Officers Leang Chhor and Joshua Delisle spotted a woman holding a baby in a second-floor window that smoke was pouring out of, according to authorities’ statement.
Chhor and Delisle told the woman to drop the baby to them, which she did, and the officers were able to catch the child safely, the statement said.
The woman then jumped from the window and was caught without injury by Chhor and Officer Warren Greenhalgh before Lowell firefighters arrived to continue evacuating residents from the building, according to officials.
At that point, the blaze had spread to two other neighboring buildings. Police officers and firefighters were able to help people in both buildings to safety, authorities said.
“Firefighters from various units of the Lowell Fire Department arrived to find a very heavy fire condition in the rear of the fire building,” Lowell Fire Chief Phil Charron described. “Fire department members worked hard in very cold weather conditions to, not only save lives, but also keep fire from extending beyond the fire building and its adjacent exposures. I commend the efforts of our firefighters, and the department’s thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this terrible incident.”
In the end, the fire resulted in the death of a 77-year-old man, who lived in the home, and serious injuries to three others. The wounded individuals, a man and two women, were taken to Boston hospitals for treatment, according to officials’ statement.
“First and foremost, I would like to convey my condolences to the victims of this tragic event,” said Lowell Police Superintendent Raymond Kelly Richardson.
“I would also like to commend Lowell Police Officers Walter Varey, Leang Chhor, Joshua Delisle, and Warren Greenhalgh for their quick response to this fire,” he added. “These officers placed themselves in harm’s way in an attempt to save as many people as they could. I am relieved that the officers were not seriously injured; this could have been much more of a tragedy. They put their lives on the line as they continued to enter the building.”
Twenty-five people were displaced by the fire. A number of the residents were aided by neighbors, who, officials noted in their statement, were gracious enough to allow them to stay warm in their homes until personnel from the American Red Cross and the Lowell Regional Transit Authority arrived.
The investigation into the fatal fire remains active and open, the statement said. State and local investigators were at the scene Wednesday working toward gaining safe access to the damaged areas.
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