More than 60 escape from fire

Tenants helped each other reach safety

Posted 2/18/21

By JOHN HOWELL Power Kanga and Mike Brouillard don't think of themselves as heroes, but Cynthia Springer knows otherwise. The three were residents of Les Chateau apartments until shortly after 3 a.m. Saturday, when fire forced them to leave. Everyone

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More than 60 escape from fire

Tenants helped each other reach safety


Power Kanga and Mike Brouillard don’t think of themselves as heroes, but Cynthia Springer knows otherwise.

The three were residents of Les Chateau apartments until shortly after 3 a.m. Saturday, when fire forced them to leave. Everyone made it out of the three-story building safely, and remarkably, thanks to the efforts of firefighters, damage was limited to the basement, the lobby and units on the first floor.

The story might have had a different ending was it not for Brouillard and Kanga. Both men came to the aid of other tenants – most of them elderly, some dependent on walkers, and one of them on oxygen – to get out of the smoke-filled building before firefighters arrived.

Brouillard and Kanga have similar recollections of being awakened by the fire alarm and thinking it was nothing serious. To be on the safe side, both looked out their window just to check. Kanga looked in the hallway and seeing nothing closed the door. No sooner had he done that than Brouillard, who also lives on the second floor, banged on the door.

He thought his neighbor was playing a joke.

He opened the door again and this time Kanga knew there was problem. In only seconds since he had looked, smoke started to fill the hallway. It was time to get out.

But neither of the men feared for themselves.

“Adrenaline set in,” Brouillard said when asked what possessed him. He could tell the smoke was coming from below and he knew a number of elderly residents lived on the first floor of the 47-unit complex. He raced down the hallway banging on doors. He didn’t stop with simply sounding the alarm. He realized time was of the essence and some tenants would need help. He started carrying people to safety.

Brouillard is hardly a linebacker, but what he lacked in brawn was made up with determination.

“It was dark and black,” he said. The thick smoke made him woozy. He was having difficulty breathing and stopped once to vomit. He was able to get to the tenant dependent on oxygen and carried her out.

“I just kept going back in,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kanya, a second lieutenant in the Army Reserves and a quality engineer, answered calls for help guiding tenants to safety. When firefighters arrived, many of the tenants were out of the building.

With firefighters at the scene, Brouillard, whose eyes were bloodshot and was coughing, was questioned if he was all right. He was taken to a rescue and administered oxygen.

Springer, who could well hold the title of Chateau Mother Hen, kept watch as people evacuated. She knows tenants, and by her account, Brouillard returned to the building multiple times and carried out six people.

For Brouillard who works as a bar back at Dave’s Bar and Grill, it was a blur. “Maybe it was four or five,” he said Tuesday night as he and about 50 tenants, who are temporarily being housed at the Crowne Plaza, gathered to hear Mayor Frank Picozzi, building owner Ed Jouki and Dean Cooper, project manager for Servpro, which is cleaning out the building.

The Red Cross covered hotel costs for two nights and provided a $500 gift card to for each unit. Jouki told tenants he would pick up the tab at $4,000 a day for another couple of days. Jouki and Picozzi home to relocate the tenants to an extended stay facility that would enable them to cook for themselves or have them move in with relatives or friends but as of Wednesday housing hadn’t been secured.

But who would pay for that, and for how long, was unclear Tuesday night. Jouki, who bought the Chateaux from Joe Paolino two years ago, believed he had insurance that would cover the cost of temporarily housing the tenants.

He said that’s what he had been led to believe. However, he was told that insurance coverage for displaced tenants is not required under state law when he sought to file a claim on his policy. He was incredulous, as he has such a provision on other properties he owns.

As soon as Jouki was alerted of the fire, he drove to Warwick, arriving as firefighters were still at the scene. He said in his 50 years of running his businesses – Jouki immigrated to this country from Lebanon at the age of 20 with $43 in his pocket – he has never experienced anything like this.

Visibly shaken as he spoke with tenants he said, “I’m sick.”

Picozzi assured tenants the city is working with multiple agencies not only to provide for the short term but also to get them back in their units as quickly as possible. The worst of the damage is on the first floor, with minor smoke damage on the second and third floors. Most of the unit doors were forced open by firefighters checking for tenants and need to be replaced. Tenants wanted to know the cause of the fire, with some speculating it had been set. Picozzi said the Fire Department is investigating.

Fire Chief Peter McMichael said Wednesday the cause of the fire that started in the basement remains “undetermined.”

Asked how long how long it might take before tenants could return, he said extensive cleaning is required and that the building would need to be fully inspected. He could not say whether fire code upgrades would be required, which would further extend a return.

“I don’t think it’s going to be anytime soon,” he said.

McMicheal reiterated praise of firefighters for their rapid assessment of the situation and “aggressive attack” of the fire.

“Their quick thinking, without a doubt, prevented this from being a tragedy,” he said. He said a fire of this nature could double in size every minute, spreading to the second and third floors.

“It really could have been a multiple tragedy fire,” he said. “As tough as it is right now, this is the best possible outcome. We were one to two minutes away [from tragedy].”

Picozzi said $8,000 was collected from a donation bucket he placed in front of his home on Gristmill Road as of Tuesday.

Cooper told the group that the building had been winterized to prevent pipes from freezing and that most of the refrigerators had been emptied of food. While not part of the services provided by Servpro, Cooper arranged to accompany tenants to their units so that they might retrieve belongings. Working with Springer and Mike Moreia, another displaced tenant, Cooper scheduled tours to the units on Wednesday.

The entry to the building was dark and partially boarded off Wednesday as tenants were checked in and escorted to their apartments. The smell of smoke permeated the entry and there was the hum of generators and fans. Brouillard was there to help.

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