By SUZANNE MOORE News Editor
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Climbing through the third-floor window of the burning eight-unit house, Firefighter Matt Barrett couldn’t see the woman he knew was there somewhere.
To his huge relief, his gloved hand found her head.
“Then I got down close to her face, and I could hear her breathing,” he said.
Flames rolled through the thick black smoke in the apartment at 15 Couch St., and the City of Plattsburgh firefighter knew flashover was just a few minutes away.
Below, firefighters Ryan Sponable and Mike Bonner kept hoses pointed at the room, buying precious time for Alexa Limato, who’d been leaning out of the window when the first city truck arrived.
She’d seemed on the point of jumping, those first firefighters thought. They told her to hold on, that rescue was coming quickly.
But by the time Barrett arrived on a second truck, just moments later, she had collapsed inside the apartment.
Friday afternoon, Limato was at Clark Burn Center at Syracuse Upstate University Hospital, where she had been taken by helicopter from CVPH Medical Center in Plattsburgh.
The SUNY Plattsburgh student, 21, was listed in serious condition there in early evening, an improvement from an earlier report that she was stable but critical.
She was one of 11 tenants in the white, wood-frame apartment house owned by Thomas Latinville; one of them had smelled smoke and run through the building, pounding on doors, waking people up and alerting them to the danger, City Police Lt. Patrick Rascoe said.
Giancarlo Pecora, 21, lived alone in a first-floor apartment at 15 Couch. He had been out downtown Thursday night and, walking home at around 1:45 a.m., saw the apartment building in flames.
“It was just ablaze,” he said Friday, about eight hours after the fire.
“I just started running towards it, and everyone was in the street freaking out.”
Barrett and the other firefighters saw the people on the street; some were crying, even screaming.
A fire doesn’t really roar, he said, but you can hear its movement, a crackling sound. But you block it all out, though, working as a team to bring control to the chaos, he said.
Barrett climbed the ladder hastily thrown up against the front of the building, struggled through the window in his heavy turn-out gear and air pack.
Limato, unconscious, lay a few feet from the window.
“I got her head out the window as quickly as I could,” he said, so she could breathe some cleaner air, away from the carbon monoxide and cyanide building up in the room.
Barrett hollered down to Capt. Scott Lawliss for help, for the first ladder wasn’t quite tall enough to maneuver himself onto it while holding Limato. And he couldn’t risk dropping her the 30 feet to the ground.
“We need to move her quickly,” was his predominant thought, “because this room is getting unstable.”
Firefighter Mark Lawliss and Chris DeAngelo got the taller ladder in place, Eric Recore climbed it, and Barrett lifted Limato down to him.
Then he moved blindly around the space, which he thought perhaps was a kitchen, checking for other victims and finding none.
The super-heated air in the room had to be at least 110 degrees, he said, capable of causing burns without flames.
Even with his gear, he said, “I was feeling the heat.”
‘TOO MUCH FIRE’
As Barrett reached the ground, he saw City Police Officer Richard Tucker trying to resuscitate a puppy.
City firefighters and others from Plattsburgh District 3 and South Plattsburgh Volunteer Fire Department were attacking the flames.
Because of the way the house was partitioned into units, Assistant Fire Chief Randy Stone said, “it was like fighting three separate fires.”
Barrett, Recore and Scott Barshow mounted the fire escape, carrying a hand line into the room at the top.
“But the fire was winning (there),” Barrett said. “Everybody had to back out — it was too hot, too much fire to handle.”
On the ground again, the combined effort of all the firefighters knocked down the flames in maybe 15 minutes, he said.
The mutual aid made the difference, he said, as did everyone working together.
“Everything we do is a team effort,” he said.
City Building Inspector Joseph McMahon, at the property Friday morning, said that the home was inspected nine months ago, and it did have the required smoke alarms.
“But it is not uncommon for tenants to disable smoke alarms on their own,” he said.
“We just don’t know yet.”
While the building remained standing, it suffered extensive fire, smoke and water damage.
At least one dog died in the fire, Rascoe said, but several other animals made it to safety.
Tucker’s efforts proved successful; the puppy he worked over began breathing again and was taken to a local veterinarian.
Pecora, a college student from Westchester County, was worried about his dog, Bernie, and cat, Stink, as well as his belongings.
Firefighters were able to rescue his pup; Stink was missing for about two hours but at last showed up.
But most of Pecora’s other stuff was destroyed.
“It’s a catastrophe,” he said, standing outside the smoke-blackened building. “It’s done. Absolutely done.”
Both SUNY Plattsburgh and the North Country Chapter of the American Red Cross were assisting the students and local residents who lived at 15 Couch with temporary housing and other needs.
City Police detectives determined the fire’s cause to be accidental, that it started in the electrical wiring of one of the second-floor apartments.
Firefighters kept a fire watch at the property on Friday, in case it flared again; the main force headed back to stations between 6:30 and 7 a.m.
Barrett, a firefighter with the City Department for about five years, has entered a lot of burning buildings.
“Luckily, everybody’s been out of the house,” he said.
Having a part in rescuing Limato left Barrett feeling good, but very anxious as well.
“I’m really just hoping the girl is OK.”
— Staff Writer Joe LoTemplio contributed to this report.COLLEGE HELPING STUDENTS The fire at 15 Couch St. early Friday displaced eight SUNY Plattsburgh students. "Our thoughts are with the residents of 15 Couch St. and especially the injured student, who was airlifted to Syracuse for treatment," President John Ettling said in a statement. "In the meantime, we are doing what we can to help. We have teamed up with the Plattsburgh College Foundation and College Auxiliary Services to provide the students with temporary residence and meal access; new textbooks and school supplies; and loaner computers." Project HELP and the Center for Student Involvement will host a meeting in at noon Tuesday in Cardinal Lounge in Angell Center for all campus groups wanting to help the displaced students. Contact Project HELP at 564-4830. Ettling also reminded students about fire safety, encouraging them to check out the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control website at http://www.dos.state.ny.us/fire/firewww.html.