SARANAC LAKE - A sunny Winter Carnival day was darkened late Saturday morning when a third-floor apartment burned on Bloomingdale Avenue above the No. 1 Chinese Restaurant.
No one was hurt, but they might have been if three local men hadn't noticed the smoke, rushed into the burning building and helped get all the residents out.
The residents were still sleeping even as smoke poured out of the upper-story windows. They apparently weren't woken up by smoke alarms; Fire Chief Brendan Keough said investigators afterward "didn't see any working smoke detectors in the building.
Saranac Lake, left, and Lake Placid firefighters use their aerial ladder trucks, pikes and hoses to attack a fire in a burning third-floor apartment above the No. 1 Chinese Restaurant on Bloomingdale Avenue at Broadway, Saranac Lake, Saturday.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
"It's just a reminder to the community to check their smoke detectors," Keough said.
It was shortly after 10 a.m., and Richard Gonyea of Vermontville said he was driving his daughter, Danielle, to Petrova School for its annual Winter Carnival children's games. As they drove by the restaurant building at 7 Bloomingdale Ave., they saw smoke coming out of a third-floor window screen.
"She said, 'Daddy, things are falling out of the building,'" Gonyea said.
After stopping the vehicle, Gonyea said he, Mickey LaMora and Jason Callahan, who had heard the commotion, went inside the building to see if anyone was still inside. The three men woke up the residents of the building - the Chinese family that owns the building, runs the restaurant and lives on the second floor, and two college-age men who live on the third floor - told them of the fire and ushered them outside.
Keough said the rescue was admirable but risky, and not something the fire department would recommend.
"Fortunately they saw it early enough that they were able to go in and the smoke wasn't too bad," Keough said. "What they did was commendable, but we can't recommend (that) because otherwise there would have been more victims for us to pull out. ... I think people tend to underestimate the power of smoke."
He said he's fortunate it was daytime, when people were around to see the smoke early. If the fire had started in the middle of the night, "it could have been a different story."
Gonyea said only smoke was showing when he helped the people out of the building; he didn't see flames until shortly afterward.
At that time, Jeff and Cathy Romano had just arrived to open their bowling alley, Romano's Saranac Lanes.
"We opened up at 10:15, and it was right after that that somebody screamed, 'There's a fire next door!'" Cathy said.
She later welcomed the woman who helps run the Chinese restaurant into Romano's, let her sit down and got her some water, until firefighters told them to evacuate the bowling alley, Cathy said. The Chinese family left the scene after that.
"She was really upset, just watching her livelihood burning up before her eyes," Cathy Romano said.
The 7 Bloomingdale Ave. building is owned by Dong Li Qin, according to Franklin County records.
Cause and origin
Electricity sparked the blaze, although fire inspectors can't be sure whether the initial cause was the wiring inside the wall or the power strip and devices plugged into the outlet.
"They've pretty much narrowed it down to two locations," Keough said. "Either one could have been the primary source of fire in that room. We're pretty sure it's one, and the other might be in relation to the first."
Fighting the fire
Keough said that when the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department arrived, "We knew everybody was out of the building, which is what we wanted to hear.
"The guys did a great job," he said of the firefighters. "We did an interior attack all the way up to the third floor. The fire had vented itself in the windows, so with the wind, third floor, we used that to our advantage to push the fire out."
The Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department helped out, adding its manpower and its aerial ladder truck to those of Saranac Lake. Up high in the buckets of the trucks' extension arms, firefighters used pikes, saws and even their hands to pull up hunks of the metal roof above the windows as smoke and flames licked at them from below.
"We got Placid in here, so we could get up and get the roof opened up, have an escape route for our guys up on the third floor," Keough said.
After responding at 10:27 a.m., firefighters didn't return to their station until 3 p.m.
The flames were contained to the front of the apartment, with water and smoke damage on the floors below that, Keough said.
"We were lucky because that one had the potential to be a big one," Keough said this morning. "With the metal roof and the bowling alley right there ... the potential for losing the block was there for sure."
Busy time for firefighters
It wasn't obvious from Keough's calm demeanor, but the previous 24 hours had been a wild time for his fire department and many other local emergency services.
He and many other Saranac Lake firefighters had spent almost nine hours the night before dealing with a severe structure fire on state Route 458 in the hamlet of Santa Clara. The former Santa Clara Lodge, an inn turned into a home, was largely destroyed, Franklin County Emergency Services Coordinator Ricky Provost said today at the Saranac Lake fire scene. Keough and Provost both said they were out at that fire until 5 a.m.
While they were out there, around 11:30 p.m. Friday Saranac Lake firefighters, police officers and public works employees had to deal with a gushing water main break on Park Avenue that flooded streets, yards and basements.
There were other calls at the same time: rescue, non-urgent fire alarms and the like.
That's a lot to pack into a short period of time, but the north end of Franklin County has had it worse. Provost said 7 Broadway was the 12th structure fire in Franklin County in the last seven days. A major house fire in Tupper Lake Sunday made it 13 in eight days.