By Robert Mills and Nick Mallard
SHIRLEY — Shirley Fire Capt. Joe Hawthorne has been fighting fires for 33 years, so he is used to being awakened by a pager, heading to the fire station and then going out to battle flames.
But when Hawthorne’s pager woke him early Sunday morning, he got dressed, left his house, and heard on his radio that someone was trapped inside the burning apartments at 18 Phoenix St., not very far from his home.
Hawthorne went against standard procedure, and went straight to the fire without his gear about 2:08 a.m.
“He acted on his pure instinct,” said Fire Chief Dennis Levesque.
Hawthorne arrived to find flames engulfing the front of four condominiums. Police Sgt. Peter Violet and Officer Sammy Santiago also arrived.
Five people who had escaped were out back. They said someone was trapped on the second floor.
Hawthorne was wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and sneakers.
“We couldn’t get through the front because it was burning,” Hawthorne said. “We went up the back stairs.”
Violet and Santiago stopped about halfway up the stairs as Hawthorne crawled forward, staying low to avoid heat and smoke.
He heard a woman yelling and went toward a burning bedroom. The woman’s yelling helped him know where to go.
“The way the heat was coming down, there wasn’t a whole lot of time left,” he said. “Another 30 or 45 seconds, and the room was going up.”
“I heard her yelling and crawled four feet or so in and felt around. Once I got close enough, I could see her,” he said. “I found her about four feet into the room and dragged her out.”
Violet and Santiago helped get the woman out of the house. They put snow on her burns until other emergency crews arrived.
Within minutes, the entire Shirley Fire Department was on scene, as were firefighters from Leominster, Ayer and Devens. It took them about two hours to get control of the blaze, which destroyed the building’s four units. Firefighters from Lunenburg and Fitchburg covered Shirley’s station.
The woman was later identified only as Patricia LeBlanc, 46.
Levesque said she was taken to Health Alliance Leominster Hospital, and then Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Authorities said she was severely burned, but that they could not release more about the nature of her injuries.
There were two occupied condominiums in the building. The other two had been condemned, though Levesque said he wasn’t sure why. He said he believes it was due to health concerns, not safety issues.
“The building was a total loss,” Levesque said.
He said it remains unclear exactly who owns the building, which might be in the possession of a bank.
No firefighters were hurt.
State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said last night that investigators have a good idea of where the fire started, but he declined to say where that is. He said it is too early in the investigation to say whether the blaze is suspicious.
“We’re looking a number of different issues,” he said.
Coan said his office, along with investigators from Middlesex District Attorney Gerard Leone’s office are leading the investigation. The district attorney’s involvement is standard procedure because someone was seriously injured in the blaze.
Andrew Argon, of 15 Phoenix St., said he was watching a movie when he saw an orange light and went to investigate just as emergency crews were arriving.
He saw two police officers speed by, and then saw “a huge flame coming out of the porch area.”
He gathered with other neighbors to watch.
“It went up pretty quick,” said Argon, who captured video of the flames rising out of the building on his cell phone. “The whole porch was gone pretty quickly.”
Hawthorne said it felt like he was on the second floor “forever,” though he estimates that reality was a significantly shorter period of time.
“It seemed like it took a long time, but it was probably a matter of less than a minute,” he said.
He said the woman’s cries may have been a key to helping her.
“That’s why I managed to go in the right direction,” Hawthorne said.
Levesque said standard procedure is for all firefighters to go to the fire station to get their gear and fire trucks before heading to a scene, but when Hawthorne heard someone was trapped, he knew he could get to the fire faster than he could get to the station.
“Instinct just kicks in and you respond,” Levesque said. “I think you would find with any firefighter, or police officer, or person in the public-safety field, that if they’re in the general location of someone needing help this will be the norm.
“(Hawthorne), the two police officers, and all the firefighters did an outstanding job bringing this under control.”
For his part, Hawthorne said he just was doing what he gets paid to do.
He was trained to fight fires in the Navy, aboard an aircraft carrier more than 30 years ago. He has been a Shirley firefighter ever since.
“It is what it is,” he said. “It’s a full-time job.”