Pedro Burato, of Lowell, was with about 20 other parents and 10 children meeting in the basement of Ste. Marie’s Church at Chamberlain and Grafton streets in Lowell, when someone noticed smoke.
“Everything went so fast from there,” said a father who wouldn’t tell me his name.
Parents, meeting to discuss the start of CCD classes next week, quickly found a fire in a basement closet and called 911. Burato grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to douse the flames, briefly thinking he had succeeded.
“It stopped, but then it started again,” he told me tonight.
Firefighters were already on their way after getting a 911 call at 6:11 p.m. reporting a fire in the basement.
Deputy Fire Chief Phil Lemire told me crews arrived to find everyone already out of the building, and thick, black smoke from floor to ceiling in the basement. He struck a second-alarm.
Ste. Marie’s is part of the Holy Family Parish, formed several years ago when St. Marie’s was merged with the Sacred Heart Parish.
Lemire said the fire was tough to fight because few windows in the basement meant smoke was trapped inside. He compared the environment down there to being in a chimney.
“Getting the heat and smoke out was a major hurdle for us to overcome,” he said.
At 6:45 p.m., the black, floor-to-ceiling smoke nearly became even more than a hurdle.
“Mayday,” called a pair of firefighters who had become lost in the blackness. “We’re running out of air.”
“They were running low on air and they couldn’t find their way out,” Lemire said.
The RIT Team, a group of four firefighters with no other job at the scene except to be ready if colleagues get in trouble, rushed into the blackness and pulled their colleagues to safety by 6:50 p.m.
“It’s what you hope you never have,” Lemire said. “Praise the Lord that we were lucky in this particular instance.”
Neither man was hurt. Lemire declined to identify them last night because he wants to make sure their families know about what happened first.
Lemire said the cause of the fire remains unclear, and is under investigation.
He said cement between the basement and first floor kept fire damage from spreading into the first floor, but that fire damage in the basement was very extensive.
“The church will be out of business for a little while,” Lemire said.
Rev. Gil Boucher was at the scene since the parish pastor is away on retreat.
“The big thing is, no one was hurt,” Boucher said.
He was watching firefighters and speaking to his parishioners at the scene, so he had little information when I spoke to him.
Bill and Marie Dunn, who were married in the church 42 years ago, and who baptized their four children and some of their grandchildren there, watched the smoke pour from the doors with fellow parishioners.
“It’s a very strong parish with very strong ties to the community,” Marie Dunn told me. “It’s a sad, sad thing. Hopefully it will be repaired.”