Fire investigators are examining whether hoarding was a factor in the New Haven house fire that killed one firefighter and seriously injured another, a state police sergeant said Thursday.
Investigators are “working around the clock” to examine the two-family home on Valley Street, the scene of an early-morning fire Wednesday that killed Firefighter “Rico” Torres Jr. and critically injured Lt. Samod Rankins, Sgt. Paul Makuc said Thursday afternoon.
“We’re still trying to determine if there was a hoarding situation or if we’re just dealing with a lot of items in one area,” he said at a news conference in New Haven. “Those kinds of working conditions certainly can hinder, not only our investigation, but the response of the fire department. So [that’s] one of the things we look for in these types of incidents — if there were any contributing factors that led to these firefighters not being able to get in there and safely do their job.”
Officials said the two firefighters became lost and disoriented and were pulled from the building unconscious. Torres died at the hospital and Rankins was taken to the burn unit at Bridgeport Hospital where his condition was improving but still critical as of Thursday afternoon.
New Haven Fire Department Assistant Chief Justin McCarthy said Chief John Alston was with Rankins at the hospital.
“His family has requested that prayers continue and they’re thankful for the prayers that have been coming in,” McCarthy said.
Hospital spokesman John Cappiello said, “We at the Connecticut Burn Center are trying to do the best we can do to try to help Lt. Rankin recover, as we do with every patient.”
Two other firefighters suffered injuries in the blaze and were treated at the hospital and released. A tenant and the property owner were rescued.
“We have been able to do quite a bit of work, but we still have quite a bit of work ahead of us,” said Makuc, who works in the state police Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit. “This investigation has become multifaceted, so we’re looking to determine the working cause of the fire, but also the incident that led up to the tragic loss of life.”
Investigators plan on spending “several more days,” at the home, as they continue to conduct interviews with responding firefighters and search the residence, Makuc added.
They were able to enter the premises for the first time Thursday morning, he said. They discovered “some building structural collapse.”
The state medical examiners are investigating what caused Torres’ death. They won’t be able to confirm the cause of death until they review lab results, a spokeswoman said. The toxicology tests generally take between six and eight weeks.
His family has requested “privacy at this difficult time while they grieve, as specifics about what steps will be taken next in regards to firefighter Torres will be taken,” McCarthy said.
Fire departments from all over the state and nation have expressed condolences on social media, and a GoFundMe account set up to help Torres’ pregnant wife and child had raised more than $186,000 by 4:20 p.m. Thursday, rocketing past its goal of $20,000.
“The department has seen overwhelming support from around the country, from our brothers and sisters in fire service, police service and civilians that have reached out,” McCarthy said. “The only thing we ask is that members of the public stay away from the Valley Street area as the investigation continues.”
The New Haven Fire Department has also been working with its employee assistance program to provide mental and emotional support to its members. Some of the resources that have been made available are peer support teams and critical scene briefings, McCarthy said.
“It’s important for us to be able to grieve,” he said. “The outpouring of support is wonderful, but at this point, I think, allowing the firefighters to come together on their own at first to battle through that is the most important piece.”
At 12:45 a.m. Wednesday, multiple 911 callers reported the fire at 190 Valley St. in the northwestern part of the city, near West Rock Ridge State Park. People were trapped, they said.
Crews encountered heavy fire when they arrived within a minute, the chief said. Firefighters rescued the two civilians, one of whom was the home’s owner.
At 1:15 a.m., fire officials called for a second alarm to bring more resources to the scene. Seven minutes later, a mayday distress signal went out over the radio. A firefighter had become lost and disoriented, Alston said.
A rescue team went to the second floor of the house, where they found and removed Torres and Rankins, who were unconscious. Torres later died.
The fire was declared under control at 3:23 a.m.
Torres, 30, joined the fire department in July 2019, and Rankins, 28, was hired in February 2018. He was promoted to lieutenant in March, the chief said.
Torres wanted to be a firefighter since he was a child, said Alston, who hired him.
©2021 Hartford Courant. Visit courant.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
RELATED FIREFIGHTER TRAINING