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Massena hotel heavily damaged by fire; No serious injuries or fatalities

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MASSENA - Firefighters and police say it is a miracle that there were no fatalities when fire tore through the eastern end of the Hillside Motel early Friday morning, leaving nearly dozen people homeless in the 22-unit structure.

Massena firefighters were toned out to the blaze at 5 a.m., and Trooper Michael Macauley, a volunteer fireman who was on duty with the state police, was on the scene within a minute of the call, according to Massena Volunteer Fire Chief Thomas Miller. He found the structure fully engulfed in flames.

St. Lawrence County Deputy Fire Coordinator Frank Burns said seven apartments were fully engulfed when firefighters arrived on the scene, and people were fleeing the building, including at least two people who jumped from a second story window.

Mr. Miller said that three residents ended up jumping from the windows of their apartment into the arms of volunteer firefighter Rick Rakoce.

“There were still three people out back that jumped from the second floor into the arms of one of our firefighters,” he said.

Mr. Burns said one problem they encountered was trying to figure out exactly how many people were in the building.

“The big problem was getting an accountability of the residents of the building. The state police did a good job with that,” he said.

Mr. Burns admitted firefighters expected the worst when they arrived at the scene. “You have a fully engulfed fire at a multi-dwelling unit at 5 o’clock in the morning when most people are still sleeping. They had reports of an explosion. You expect the worst,” he said.

But Chief Miller, still working at the scene Friday morning, said there were no fatalities and no serious injuries. He said one firefighter suffered a thumb injury.

Mr. Burns predicted the building will be declared a total loss. “I don’t think the code enforcement officer will allow this structure to reopen,” he said.

Firefighters from Massena, Louisville, Helena and Hogansburg-Akwesasne battled the blaze along with rescue units from Massena and Tri-Town.

Vaugh and April Cole were sleeping in their apartment, which now serves as the demarcation line separating the heavily damaged portion of the hotel from the western end.

“All of a sudden we hear the lady from number 10 yelling and screaming, ‘Fire, fire, get out, get out,” Ms. Cole recalled.

The Coles said when they got outside and saw the flames. Mr. Cole said he then raced next door and when no one answered his knocks opened the unlocked door. “I grabbed the two kids and yelled for them (the adults) to get out,” he said, noting the children were elementary school age.

Ashley Cross said the children were safe and with their father. “Thank God. Everything was engulfed in flames at that end,” she said, gesturing to the eastern end of the building.

The Coles said they believed the fire broke out in apartment 10, the home of an elderly man on oxygen. They said they believed the explosion took place in his apartment.

Mr. Cole said it was his understanding the residents of two apartments - 9 and 10 - were transported to Massena Memorial Hospital during the fire, and the two residents of apartment 22 were being treated after jumping out of their second floor apartment.

Mr. Miller said two of the three residents that jumped were then airlifted to Syracuse for treatment of burns and smoke inhalation.

Tim Schwob, a volunteer with Red Cross said Friday morning that emergency shelter arrangements had been made for nine residents of the building, although additional arrangements may end up having to be made.

“There might be some additional ones, because as you know there are some folks in the hospital.”

Jo Ann Pellegrino, owner of the Hillside, said 18 of the 22 units in the complex were rented. She said she wasn’t certain how many people were currently living in the building.

When asked what her plans were for the hotel, Ms. Pelligrino replied, “I don’t even want to think about that right now.”

As firefighters wrapped up their efforts Friday morning, Ms. Pelligrino said while the fire was bad, things could have been worse.

“The fire couldn’t have been much worse, but I’m glad everyone made it out OK,” she said.

The last time there was a fire at the building that wasn’t the case, as The Hillside was the site of a fatal fire on Dec. 28, 2009. Melanie H. Jones died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to smoke inhalation, according to an autopsy.

“I can’t beleive we’re going through this again,” she said.

The St. Lawrence County Cause and Orgin Team is on scene investigating the cause of this morning’s fire.

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