Sitting on a bench outside their charred condominium Wednesday morning, Marshall and Rae Winokur were in disbelief as they watched fire officials inspect the damage from a vicious fire Tuesday night at the Old Greenwich Gables complex that left several families homeless.
The couple, both 81 years old, moved into the complex six weeks ago, and now have virtually nothing left. Their daughter, Bonnie Bancroft, said they were shocked to come to the scene Tuesday night and witness the destruction.
"There is a lot of sadness," said Bancroft, who was helping her parents pack up the few items not consumed by the blaze.
The Winokurs were two of nearly a dozen people who lost everything Tuesday night when a fire broke out at 5:30 p.m. in a strip of condos in the back of the complex, located at 51 Forest Ave. Fire officials did not have a full count of displaced residents Wednesday. The blaze spread quickly to all three levels of the building, gutting three units and badly damaging six others.
Fire officials said the flames traveled within the walls and ceiling, allowing it to move quickly and making it difficult to contain. The fire also caused the second floor to collapse, preventing firefighters from getting to the flames right away.
"It was not really a big fire, but it was very labor intensive," said Fire Marshal Joseph Benoit, who described how firefighters spent hours "chasing" the flames through the walls. "This is one of the more difficult fires we have had in a long time."
Fire inspectors working on scene Wednesday morning said it appeared construction workers using a blow torch Tuesday may have caused smoldering, which after several hours led to the blaze. Since the fire was trapped in concealed spaces, the sprinkler system did not go off, officials said.
"They were doing waterproofing and some of the work (involved) using a torch," said Deputy Fire Marshal James McDonald. "Something like that can smolder for hours before the fire starts."
Construction workers had left the scene by the time the fire started, officials said.
Nine units in the building sustained damage from smoke, flames and heat, fire officials said. Twenty families were processed by Greenwich Red Cross officials at the nearby Greenwich Civic Center on Harding Road, and about 30 residents were put up at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich on East Putnam Avenue on Tuesday night, according to Fire Chief Pete Siecienski.
Siecienski said the families who live in the nine affected units will likely be away from their homes for a "substantial amount of time."
Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Nixon, who directed firefighters battling the blaze Tuesday, said the fire was initially reported in a second-floor apartment and raced through the voids in the building fed by lightweight materials used in construction. It took firefighters at least five hours to squelch the blaze, Nixon said.
Fire officials said a wooden truss system, designed to bear the weight of the structure, collapsed within 20 minutes of the start of the fire, leading the kitchen and living room of the second-floor apartment to crash through to the first floor. Siecienski said truss systems are responsible for the death of many firefighters each year around the country.
"The truss system is designed to bear the weight, but breaks down quickly in a fire," Siecienski said, adding that the collapse made extinguishing the fire more difficult. "It was very labor intensive with cutting, sawing and pulling of wood from the exterior to get at the fire."
Initial reports Tuesday night said a small explosion occurred when the fire first started. Deputy Fire Marshal John Fronio said that was the result of firefighters opening the door, which allowed oxygen in and caused a back draft to form and creating a loud noise. Electricity and the natural gas supply was cut from the entire complex Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, but officials said the majority of power had been restored to the units unaffected by the blaze. McDonald said the complex has fire walls between units that helped stop the blaze from spreading down the strip to other condos.
Holly Izant-McSharry, a Red Cross volunteer, said she had been out at the scene all night and returned Wednesday morning to make sure displaced residents had a place to go and that the 125 emergency responders had enough drinking water.
"We help plan what (residents) should do next," said Izant-McSharry. "A lot of people were too shocked to talk about that (last night)." Izant-McSharry said many displaced residents were able to stay with family Tuesday night.
Marshall Winokur said he and his wife would be staying with their daughter in Old Greenwich for the time being. Winokur said in spite of the grief they felt from losing their new home, seeing the compassion and bravery of the firefighters was helping them both pull through the ordeal.
"They have been superb," said Winokur. "Each of them expressed their warmth to us and did what they could to help. At least it alleviates some of the anxiety."
Staff Writer Martin Cassidy contributed to this report.