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Three Dead, Five Missing in Rooming House Fire

August 9, 1989

LYNN, Mass. (AP) _ Investigators today searched for five missing people and the cause of a blaze that killed at least three people at a rooming house whose landlord had been charged with failing to install an adequate sprinkler system.

″It’s going to be a long and tedious job,″ said Deputy Fire Chief William Conway. ″The building’s not very stable and we’re going to be taking it apart brick by brick.″

Authorities said building violations contributed to the still uncertain number of deaths and several injuries suffered among dozens of tenants who lowered themselves to safety on ropes after the fire broke out early Tuesday.

Trooper Dennis Galvin of the state fire marshal’s office began inspecting the Ben Crest Plaza today and said he hoped to learn where the blaze began and whether the alarm system was working. ″We’re just getting our feet wet,″ he said.

The city previously had filed a criminal complaint against the building’s owner for failing to install a proper sprinkler-alarm system. An attorney for the landlord said the sprinkler installation was to have begun next week.

Benjamin Amero, 50, jumped to his death while trying to escape the fire shortly after it broke out about 12:30 a.m. Two other unidentified victims were recovered from the building’s rubble.

State Fire Marshal Joseph O’Keefe said an adequate sprinkler-alarm system would have doused the hallways and alerted the fire department. Instead, he said, the system was substandard and residents, who claimed the building’s fire alarm didn’t sound, were left scrambling to safety.

″It went up like this,″ said tenant Dwayne Rogers, 25, striking a match and shaking his head while watching it burn. ″Just like that, the whole building.″

Leo McDonnell, 46, whose life was saved when Rogers awoke him, made it to safety by clambering to an adjacent roof.

Others weren’t so lucky.

″I saw one guy start out the window, and then the smoke blocked the view,″ McDonnell said. ″And then when the smoke cleared, he was gone. I don’t know if he fell or went back in.″

Survivors said the screams of their neighbors pierced the night.

″It wasn’t screams of help,″ said Bobby Barrett, 19. ″It was more like screams of burning.″

The fire marshal and Lynn police disagreed on the number of guests on the night of the blaze, but early reports put the number at 37. By late in the day, officials said, five people were still unaccounted for.

Extensive structural damage raised safety concerns and hampered Tuesday’s investigation, said Galvin.

Capt. John Decareau, head of Lynn’s arson squad, said it was too soon to determine the fire’s cause.

Conway said city law allows climbing ropes in lieu of external fire escapes. But tenants and rescue workers claimed many of the ropes didn’t reach the ground, so they were either left dangling or forced to jump to an adjacent building.

″We saw a couple of people that couldn’t reach the roof, and they got torched,″ said Rogers, who tried to wake other tenants before escaping to an adjacent roof.

Al DiVirgilio, mayor of this city of 80,000 on the seacoast five miles north of Boston, said two criminal complaints were pending against the rooming house’s owner.

One involved the owner’s failure to install a sprinkler system required under a 2-year-old city ordinance adopted after a 1984 rooming house fire that killed 15 people, the mayor said.

Leo Allard, the Ben Crest’s owner, has been battling the ordinance in court and refused to comment Tuesday. Allard’s attorney, James E. Smith, said his client and other rooming house owners were seeking reasonable time to install sprinkler systems.

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