Syracuse, N.Y. — Edwin Capeles woke up to the smell of smoke in his Butternut Street apartment early Sunday morning and immediately carried his wife to her wheelchair.
He called 911, but the Syracuse Fire Department was already there.
The two escaped through the building’s one exit.
Outside, they saw neighbors hanging from windows on the third floor. Firefighters threw up ladders to reach them.
While teams of firefighters fought the flames, others entered the building in pairs to search for people who were asleep and overwhelmed by thick, black smoke.
“I saw them taking babies out,” Capeles said. “I just thanked God.”
About 50 firefighters pulled 15 people out of the building in 10 minutes. An unknown number of people fled on their own. One person remains hospitalized. No firefighters were injured.
“This could have made national news in a very bad way,” Deputy Fire Chief John Kane said.
The fire started at about 1:20 a.m. Sunday in one of the 48 apartments at 1312 Butternut Street. The apartment complex – a series of buildings surrounding a parking lot – is home to many refugee and immigrant families from places like Haiti, Cuba, Cameroon and Sudan.
The fire started in an apartment in a building that has six apartments, two on each of three floors. The building is in the back and surrounded by cars, making a tight squeeze for big rescue vehicles.
For residents, there is only one way out, through a center stairwell.
Many people called 911 from inside and outside the building. One man told a dispatcher that he was trapped in the stairwell with two children. Another caller said there were five people stuck in the apartment.
Syracuse police officers on duty in the neighborhood arrived seconds before the fire department.
“People were screaming at them that people were dying inside,” Kane said. “People were yelling that there was a baby trapped inside the building.”
Firefighters arrived within three minutes. They immediately called in more crews and more ambulances, Kane said.
They threw ladders up both sides of the building to reach the third floor. The crew that was usually assigned to cut a hole in the roof and relieve the heat instead climbed ladders to help, Kane said.
“The people that were coming out the windows via ladder had a very limited time left,” Kane said. “The people we had to go in and rescue, they were on borrowed time.”
The fire department is still investigating how the fire started. It is not considered suspicious, Kane said. Most of the damage was contained to one unit, but heavy smoke made its way through the building.
People opened their doors to smoke, then ran for the windows, he said.
Kane is not aware of any building design issues that would have caused the fire to spread so quickly. He said fully furnished apartments can provide a big fuel load for a fire. There was nothing unusual about the fire, he said.
There were working smoke detectors, he said.
Buildings with only one exit were allowed in the 1960s and the city does not require old buildings to update to 2021 fire codes. Kane said he did not know how many exits a modern six-unit apartment building would be required to have.
The building is owned by Club Three Property, a limited liability company with an address in Syracuse. The company purchased the complex in 2013, property records show.
There were no open code violations with the city. The last alarm inspection was in January, a city spokesman said.
Firefighters do not know how many people were inside the building when the fire started because some people fled on their own. Because the fire started in the middle of the night, many people were home and asleep, he said.
An unknown head count presents a challenge for firefighters to search every room in low visibility. The survival window closes quickly.
“We’ve got to get in there and do it quick,” Kane said.
Capeles has lived in the building for six years. He said his neighbors are refugees and immigrants from many different countries, including Haiti, Cuba, Sudan, Congo and Camaroon. A Puerto Rican flag can be seen in one window. On Sunday afternoon, the birthday lyrics “Cumpleanos Feliz” drifted out the window of the building next door. One man outside the building Sunday afternoon only spoke Swahili.
The fire department does not have translators. But the language of rescue is universal. Firefighters are not yelling commands as they search a building. They are climbing ladders, entering buildings and methodically searching every room, Kane said.
“When the fire’s going very good and it’s very hot and the visibility goes down to zero, verbal communication goes out the window,” Kane said. “In most cases, it really isn’t a problem for us.”
The American Red Cross helped five adults, a 16-year-old and a one-year old with lodging, food and clothes. Later, staff used a new translation service to leave a message for one person they couldn’t communicate with at the fire. It was one of the first times for the Red Cross to employ the new technology, a spokeswoman said.
Contact Michelle Breidenbach | firstname.lastname@example.org | 315-470-3186.