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3 town police officers called lifesavers in May condo blaze

 From left are Lt. Richard Pedrini, Capt. James Curran, Sgt. Bryan Gallagher, Officer Steven Conroy and Officer Will Milner. From left are Lt. Richard Pedrini, Capt. James Curran, Sgt. Bryan Gallagher, Officer Steven Conroy and Officer Will Milner.

Three Arlington police officers were awarded the Massachusetts Police Association's (MPA) Life Saving Award for their work during the devastating Arizona Terrace fire last May 5.

Sgt. Bryan Gallagher, Officer Steven Conroy and Officer Will Milner received the award at the 115th annual MPA Conference in Hyannis last week. Lt. Richard Pedrini of the Arlington police and MPA Executive Board member presented the award.

On May 5 at 4 a.m., Sgt. Gallagher and officers Conroy and Milner were dispatched to investigate a reported fire with possible entrapment at the Arizona Terrace apartment complex in Arlington.

Despite extreme danger, as the entire side of the building was already fully engulfed in flames, all three officers worked independently on each side of the fire, kicking open doors to alert sleeping residents, a Nov. 3 news release says.

Their work and immediate response was critical, because of the intensity of the fire and the fact that most residents were sleeping and unaware of the danger they faced, the release from the office of John Guilfoil said. These three officers were able to evacuate the entire complex with the exception of one resident, who could not be reached and died.

"These three officers entered an extremely dangerous situation, putting their lives on the line to save dozens of others," Chief Fred Ryan said in a news release Nov. 3. "Their bravery and dedication deserve to be recognized and commended, and we are certainly proud to call them our own." 

In May, flames ripped through the Brookside Condominium Complex at Arizona Terrace in East Arlington.

The improper disposal of smoking materials onto mulch near a condominium building is believed to have caused the fatal fire, officials said in a statement at the time.

Officials said Wai Cheong Lee, 47, died after the fast-moving flames trapped him inside his unit.

Town Meeting was told May 6 that 15 families were affected.

The name was released in a joint statement by Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan, Arlington Fire Chief Robert Jefferson and Arlington Police Chief Fred Ryan.

"This fire claimed the life of a man because someone discarded something improperly, most likely a cigarette," Ryan said in the May 7 statement. "Our thoughts are with the victim’s family at this time."

Coan added, "Mr. Lee died in the middle of night where he should have felt safest -- his home. Our national slogan is 'Fire is Everyone’s Fight,' and I would ask people to take that to heart and be responsible for fire safety. Everyone. Everyday."

Jefferson said: "On behalf of the fire department and the residents of Arlington I offer condolences to Mr. Lee’s family. Firefighters see first-hand the heart-breaking losses victims of fire suffer when they lose their home and possessions. This terrible fire affected so many individuals and the community at large."

Globe photo of Arizona Place condo fire, May 5, 2015Chief Bob Jefferson at scene of Arizona Place condo fire. / Globe photo

"A man died in this fire and tragically the situation was completely avoidable," District Attorney Ryan said. "The fire started because someone carelessly disposed of smoking materials, most likely a cigarette. It appears that mulch caught fire and the flames quickly spread to a wooden balcony and stairway."

The four-alarm fire broke out on the third floor of the condo about 4 a.m.

Jefferson said in an earlier report that everybody inside was able to get outside safely, but crews still needed to do a room-by-room assessment of the complex. Apparently, that check led to the discovery of a body. 

Jefferson told Fox News that 36 units were destroyed or damaged, as well as some vehicles in the parking lot.

Crews had to use a battering ram on one door after there was no answer.

Firefighters from Cambridge and Somerville assisted Arlington in fighting the blaze.

In a morning news release May 5, state Coan, Ryan and Jefferson, announced that an individual had died as the result of the fire. The name of the deceased was not released next of kin were notified.

"Residents were woken up abruptly, Ryan said in the release. "Many of them heard pounding on their doors and cries to ‘get out quickly.’ This still is an active investigation with a great deal of debris for investigators to comb through as they seek to determine exactly what happened early this morning."

Discussion of mulch

The state fire code has regulations on the use of mulch that prohibits the new application of mulch within 18 inches around combustible exteriors of buildings, such as wood or vinyl, but not brick or concrete. Residential buildings with six units or less are exempt from this regulation. The regulation applies to all other buildings including commercial properties.

Coan said, "The mulch around this building was closer than the required 18 inch barrier and the property owners will receive a non-criminal citation for violating the fire code. Similar past fires were the very reason this provision of the code was enacted."

Fire Chief Jefferson stated, "Mulch is a combustible material that can be easily ignited by improperly discarded smoking materials. The risk is that what starts as a small outdoor mulch fire can quickly spread to buildings. A mulch fire can be well underway before someone notices or is alerted by smoke alarms as happened with this terrible fire. It is important to be a safe smoker: don’t toss cigarettes into mulch which can easily catch fire. In addition, property owners should provide appropriate receptacles for disposing of smoking materials."

Ryan commented, "This is a sad and unfortunate situation involving the loss of life in our community. The Arlington Police Department will work closely with the state fire marshal, Arlington Fire Department, and Middlesex District Attorney’s Office to conduct a thorough investigation."


This announcement was published Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015.

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