Fire in Connecticut apartment complex leaves 150 homeless

Eds: UPDATES with mayor saying blaze is suspicious, minor edits. AP Video.

AP Photo CTNOR101, CTNOR102

BY SUSAN HAIGH

Associated Press Writer

NORWICH, Conn. (AP) -- A fast-moving fire destroyed a large apartment complex early Saturday, and authorities were looking for dozens of people reported unaccounted for.

No deaths had been confirmed, but Fire Chief Ken Scandariato said he couldn't rule out that some residents might not have escaped.

He said Saturday morning that 105 of the estimated 150 residents of the Peachtree Garden Apartments had been located. Some may have gone to stay with friends and relatives, he said, adding: "It's a question right now. It's in question."

The wreckage was still too hot by late morning to allow the use of arson dogs or cadaver dogs, Scandariato said, and officials expected to be at the scene until at least Sunday afternoon.

Fire and police officials were not giving updates Saturday afternoon. The cause of the fire remained unclear, but officials were treating the blaze as suspicious, said Mayor Benjamin Lathrop.

The fire was reported at 1:30 a.m. in a 12-building apartment complex with a common roof. Two of the buildings were fully engulfed by the time firefighters arrived and tenants were calling for help, Scandariato said.

Firefighters and police officers ran door to door to alert anyone still inside, he said.

Alarms were working but the complex didn't have a sprinkler system because that wasn't required when it was built in 1976. The entire structure was engulfed in flames within minutes, and all but about eight of 120 apartments were destroyed.

"It got ahead of us," Scandariato said. "It was just too much fire to mount an attack to stop it."

Mohammad Sundal, 43, was spending his first night in his one-bedroom apartment when he awoke to the smell of smoke. His living room was already on fire, he said.

"It was so intense, the fire," Sundal said. "If I stayed for two more minutes, trust me, it was going to burn me."

Tenant Beverly Creed and her son, Travis, 17, were awakened by a downstairs neighbor. The complex's courtyard was already on fire as they ran to safety.

"It was scary," she said. "I just grabbed my purse and pair of sandals to put on."

Another tenant, Carol Rice, said she heard an explosion. "Then I opened my glass sliding door and the flames were just flying everywhere," she said. She escaped wearing a bathrobe and slippers.

"Oh, my God. I'm a total wreck," she said, sobbing. "My pills, all my medications are burnt."

Investigators didn't know yet if the fire started inside or outside the complex. The Fire Department was working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the state fire marshal's office.

Tenants were being taken to a nearby school set up for use as an emergency shelter.

Norwich is about 40 miles east of Hartford.