SCHENECTADY Catherine Lighthall heard her downstairs neighbor yelling and then smelled the smoke.
By the time the 71-year-old retiree comprehended that her apartment of nearly 13 years was being consumed by a fast-moving fire, the front staircase was already impassable. She grabbed her purse and a coat and made it down a set of stairs in the rear of the apartment just in time to see the two-family building at 5 Daggett Terrace erupt in flames during the predawn hours Monday morning.
Her downstairs neighbor fled the building without shoes or a shirt. And by the time she saw him outside, the two-family home at 7 Daggett Terrace had also caught fire.
“It spread fast,” Lighthall recalled later from the Days Inn, where other victims of the fire were seeking refuge Monday afternoon.
Schenectady fire investigators are now trying to determine what touched off the early-morning fire, which destroyed both homes and caused extensive exterior damage to another pair nearby. Deputy Chief Michael Gillespie said a cause and origin of the fire is still under investigation.
“We’re not far enough into the investigation to say either way,” he said from the scene.
City firefighters John Wayand and Sean Froehlich both sustained burns from the blaze. They were attempting to search 7 Daggett Terrace for residents when there was a flashover — a term used to describe the sudden and rapid burst of fire through the air.
Both men were treated for minor burns at Ellis Hospital and released. Gillespie said their turnout gear was nearly destroyed by the sudden high-temperature blast that ripped through the building.
“We’re looking at the integrity of the gear,” he said.
The fire was first reported around 3 a.m. By the time firefighters arrived a short time later, flames were visible on both buildings.
The blaze brought roughly two dozen firefighters from the city and prompted at least three other area departments to respond for mutual aid. At one point, flames were visible from the main station about a half-mile away on Veeder Avenue.
Gillespie said the response was somewhat hampered by the ability to move fire apparatus down the narrow street. Firefighters were able to knock down most of the flames by 5 a.m., but crews remained on scene until the late afternoon.
Three residents were treated for minor smoke inhalation. An official with the regional chapter of the American Red Cross said five families and a total of nine people were seeking assistance.
The buildings at 7 and 5 Daggett Terrace both had collapsed roofs. The homes at 3 and 9 Daggett were evacuated but sustained less damage.
Lighthall said her downstairs neighbor indicated he saw sparks coming from behind a television set. She said the man told her he tried to douse them with water before the fire broke out.
Lighthall said she felt fortunate to get out of the apartment — a rental property owned by former state Assemblyman Tim Gordon — with her life. But she lost everything else in the blaze, and her renter’s insurance lapsed three years ago.
“It’s the first time I’ve been through something like this,” she said.
Shakeyla Sawyer, a resident of 7 Daggett, said she first called in the fire after she notice a glow on the side of the house. She wasn’t surprised by how fast it spread, considering the proximity of the homes. “This street is mad small,” she said. “Almost everything could catch on fire.”
The latest fire caps a busy week for city firefighters. The Daggett Terrace fire was the third blaze to draw firefighters over a six-day period.
Last Tuesday, lights on a Christmas tree in a Fenwick Avenue home caught fire, leaving a family of four homeless. Firefighters were able to douse the blaze within 20 minutes but the damage made the home uninhabitable.
On New Year’s Day, an elderly city resident escaped his residence on Lenox Road after an improperly disposed of match started a fire. The blaze caused fire and heavy smoke damage to the entire house.