Right place at the right time

Acton off-duty firefighters rushed in to save lives

Acton firefighter Shaun Shattuck, left, and Acton Fire Captain Robert Smith, right, this week revisited the scene of last week’s fatal fire in Pepperell. (Jon Winkler / Nashoba Valley Voice)

PEPPERELL — Sometime after 8 a.m. on Tuesday, July 30, Shaun Shattuck and Robert Smith headed into Donelan’s Supermarket for a quick shopping run.

Soon after, the Acton firefighters found themselves springing into action.

Smith, a captain with the Acton Fire Department, and Shattuck, another Acton firefighter, were the first two emergency officials to respond to the four-alarm fire that burned the eastern part of an apartment building at 50 Main Street last week.

One woman was killed and four firefighters were injured in the blaze, the cause of which was deemed to be accidental by the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office last week.

Smith and Shattuck were both off-duty at the time of the fire. Shattuck said that he and his wife are building a house in Pepperell with Smith helping build the foundation for the house.

Smith said he and Shattuck were only in Donelan’s for “maybe six minutes” before leaving the parking lot of the supermarket and seeing the fire as they were turning left out of the parking lot.

“I saw the fire coming from where the air-conditioning unit was on the eastern part of the building, just out of that front window,” Smith said.

“When I first saw it, I did a double-take because I saw black smoke on the first floor,” Shattuck said. “I know that building, my friend’s grandfather used to live there.”

Acton firefighter Shaun Shattuck, left, and Acton Fire Captain Robert Smith, right, in front of the burnt apartment building on 50 Main Street in Pepperell (Jon Winkler / Nashoba Valley Voice)

Shattuck, who is also an on-call firefighter for Pepperell, said he immediately called 911 and alerted them to strike the incident as a two-alarm fire.

Though neither man was wearing proper firefighting equipment, Shattuck said that he and Smith ran to opposite sides of the house trying to enter the building and rescue people.

Smith himself said he was wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirts, even grabbing a second t-shirt from his car in case he needed to wet it with water and wrap it around his head to safely enter the flaming building.

While he noted that there were people at the apartment’s front door trying to get people out, Smith said that he went to the back-right of the building and ascended the staircase to the second floor. He saw two apartments on the second floor with one empty and the other with an elderly woman coming out of the living space to see what was going on.

“She didn’t even know the building was on fire and smoke was starting to go up the staircase,” Smith said. “At the time in my opinion, the fire had been burning at the front of the building for some time.”

Smith said more emergency officials were on scene within four minutes. As the fire spread to the second floor, Smith noted how nearby power lines had fallen and the vinyl side of the building started to melt from the heat.

According to Pepperell tax assessors, the building was first built in 1920 and, as of last week, was valued at over $376,000.

“It was an old dry building,” Smith said. “This was a typical fire for a structure of that age.”

“It’s an old building and they typically have different types of construction,” Shattuck said. “So a fire that started low might spread quickly. Search and rescue is a big early priority due to the carbon monoxide from the fire.”

Smith said that he and Shattuck stayed on scene for about an hour informing other arriving firefighters of the situation. Shattuck noted the “total team effort” at the scene by both emergency officials and civilians. As for his and Smith’s efforts?

“Any firefighter would’ve totally done the same thing,” he said.

Smith said he told a woman who was in tears after the fire something similar.

“Just doing my job.”

Pepperell Fire Chief Brian Borneman was thankful for both the officers and bystanders that helped out at the scene.

“It’s a tough job we do so it’s good that we get assistance,” Borneman said.


Jon Winkler: MrJW595 on Twitter