Center of Hope staffers aid woman, children at West Street fire
By Citizen Chronicle writers
SOUTHBRIDGE — A serendipitous decision may have saved lives Thursday afternoon in the three-alarm fire on West Street.
A trio of executives from the Center of Hope were making an impromptu visit to their building at 68 West St. a stop that lasted just 15 minutes. As the group was leaving, they noticed smoke coming from a second-floor apartment across the street and sprang into action, calling 911 and rushing in to help residents.
The fire broke out in the multifamily apartment building at 71 West St. about 12:45 p.m. Center of Hope President and CEO Jim Howard, Executive Vice President and COO Cindy Howard and Assistant Executive Vice President and COO Erika Travinski were wrapping up a visit with Monique Chapdelaine, who runs the day habilitation program at the organization’s 68 West St. property.
Ms. Travinski said she and the Howards has first visited the Center of Hope’s program at 40 West St. when they decided to “pop in” and check in on Ms. Chapdelaine’s program, where participants develop life skills and take part in social recreational activities.
While the senior staff members were departing the second site, they noticed the smoke was coming from the apartment across the street, but the cause was initially unclear.
“We thought it might be a grill on the porch,” Ms. Howard said.
“Or a pot burning on a stove,” Mr. Howard interjected.
The origin of the smoke became irrelevant when the group heard a woman calling out for help.
“Somebody heard the woman say help and nobody thought about it, everybody just jumped into action here, especially (Ms. Travinski and Ms. Chapdelaine). Jim went to go get a fire extinguisher, but they just ran right up the stairs and asked about the children, and if there was anybody else in the house, and they just went in and got the 2- and the 4-year-old,” said Ms. Howard.
According to the quartet of Center of Hope administrators, the woman calling for help was taking care of three children, ages 2, 3, and 4. They said the woman is the mother to one of the children and aunt to the other two children.
The good Samaritans couldn’t see once inside the apartment.
“There wasn’t a lot of visibility in the kitchen when they ran in there, they couldn’t see the kids,” Mr. Howard said. Ms. Chapdelaine said she “bumped into” the children as she could not see them in the thick, acrid smoke.
“You couldn’t see in there at all. We were about a foot apart from each other and we couldn’t see each other,” Ms. Travinski said. “Fortunately, we weren’t in there for very long. The kids were in that first room.”
Ms. Howard suggested they were in the apartment for about 30 seconds before escaping with the children in their arms.
Once outside, the residents were ushered to the Center of Hope site at 68 West St. to be cleaned up and consoled.
The young children appeared unfazed by the harrowing event, gladly playing games and watching television safely inside the day habilitation building while first responders worked to get the fire under control.
“The kids never even cried,” Ms. Travinski said. “They were amazing, and we were able to keep their spirits up.”
“They weren’t crying, they weren’t yelling, they were just standing there,” Mr. Howard said. “They were just playing. They’re little kids.”
As first responders were en route and arriving, the day habilitation program “executed an evacuation” of the recreational program that had been taking place, Ms. Travinski said. “They kept people calm, it was very smooth, and everyone left without being upset.”
The woman and the three children were taken to Harrington Memorial Hospital and treated for smoke inhalation, fire officials said.
Ms. Chapdelaine and Ms. Travinski went with the children to the hospital via ambulance, but opted not to seek further treatment for themselves. Ms. Howard helped pick up the family’s school-aged children just up the street at West Street School, bringing them to the hospital to meet with their family.
The mother of the two children who were being watched by their aunt was working at the Comfort Inn in Sturbridge at the time of the fire; she was provided a ride home by the hotel manager. Transportation was also arranged for the father, who was working at the Sturbridge Host Hotel.
“These people are heroes,” Ms. Howard said, gesturing toward Ms. Travinski and Ms. Chapdelaine, who immediately rebuffed the accolades.
“It was a coordinated effort,” Ms. Travinski asserted. “So many people were just really heroic that day and we were grateful to have been where we were. It was just a matter of being at the right place at the right time.”
“Two minutes earlier, we would have walked out that door and we wouldn’t have noticed it; two minutes later and those babies might have been gone,” Ms. Howard said. “It was exactly when it should have been.”
Many Center of Hope employees worked to help the fire victims in the immediate aftermath. Ms. Travinski applauded her coworkers’ efforts, saying, “There were staff cleaning the soot off of the children, they were taking snacks out of their own lunch bags to give the kids, people were giving the kids water … our staff was consoling people.”
A staff member went to the store to buy diapers for the youngest children. Ms. Travinski said the overall response embodied the “good will” the Center of Hope “prides ourselves on.”
“It’s one of those moments that make you really proud to be a part of the Center of Hope,” she said.
The 4,600-square foot wooden structure was constructed in 1900 and is currently owned by 39 Newton Street LLC, care of Michael S. Kline of Needham, according to assessor records. Fire officials have yet to cite a cause of the fire, and the building has been declared temporarily uninhabitable. The American Red Cross is assisting residents with temporary quarters and assistance, while the Howards noted some of the Center of Hope’s services, including its thrift shop and food bank, would be made available to aid those displaced by the fire.