July 29. 2013 6:58AM

Four-alarm blaze caused by cigarette displaces 60 in Manchester

New Hampshire Union Leader

Three stories of damage from a four-alarm fire early Monday morning at Hilltop Apartments, 24 Country Club Drive, in Manchester. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER – An overnight four-alarm blaze in a three-story Washington Park Estates apartment building sent about 60 people fleeing from their homes in the middle of the night, a fire official said.

"It was the scariest thing I have ever been through in my life," said Alexander Morin, 26. It wasn't a fire alarm that woke him about 3 a.m. Monday but a strange crackling sound.

"I woke up and looked out and saw the light," he said. Flames had engulfed his third-floor balcony, sweeping upward from the first floor, and though he did not know it at the time, had already made it into the attic of the 40-unit apartment building.

He yelled to his sleeping wife, Jessica, waking her, and then grabbed their 4-year-old son. The family fled just ahead of flames sweeping into their living room.

"We were heading out our door and the fire was literally in our living room and I cried," Jessica Morin said. "I cried."

The young family ran down the third-floor hallway, down the stairs and out the door to safety. She was dressed only in a towel, while her husband and son were in undershorts.

They lost everything in the blaze, but Morin said they have rental insurance.

Fire Chief James Burkush said the fire was caused by the improper disposal of smoking materials. Told how the blaze began, Morin said, "Again? That's so outrageous. It was a non-smoking building."

The Morins, who have lived at the Washington Place complex for about four years, moved into the building because it is specifically a non-smoking building.

Previously, they lived at 22 Country Club Drive, which on July 21, 2012, shortly after they moved out, caught fire when someone carelessly tossed a cigarette off a balcony.

An alarm directly wired to the fire station alerted firefighters at 3:02 a.m. to the blaze. Burkush said smoke detectors inside the building did not go off immediately because the fire was on the outside of the building. He believes once flames got into the attic, a heat alarm alerted the station to the fire.

Soon after, 911 calls began pouring in.

When fire crews from the Hackett Hill station arrived, flames were shooting up the three balconies on the Front Street side of the building. A few people were already outside, but firefighters immediately entered the building and went door to door to ensure everyone made it to safety.

A second alarm was quickly sounded and then a third, bringing all off-duty firefighters to the scene, and then a fourth. About 100 firefighters battled the blaze, which was brought under control in about 90 minutes.

The 40-unit building has fire walls, dividing it into three sections. A third of the building, in the area where the fire started, was destroyed, including the Morins' apartment.

No resident was injured, but one firefighter suffered a minor injury to his knee when he tripped and fell, Burkush said.

Fire crews managed to save about two-thirds of the building, according to Burkush, but damage still is estimated at between $750,000 and $1 million. None of the apartments are habitable, since power to the building is disconnected.

Thirty-eight of the apartments were occupied, according to Lisa Venditti, vice president of CPM, which owns the building.

She said they are grateful for the work of the firefighters, police and the Red Cross who are assisting an estimated 60 residents. "We're very relieved everybody got out safely," Venditti said.

The American Red Cross, New Hampshire Disaster Action Team of volunteers are working with the displaced residents.

Maria White, chief executive officer, said they are working with management of the apartment complex to determine if a temporary shelter is needed to accommodate the displace residents. At this time, residents may check in at the clubhouse to receive assistance.

Residents also are asked to call the Red Cross' emergency assistance line at 1-800-464-6692.

Earlier story follows:

MANCHESTER – An overnight three-alarm blaze in a three-story West Side apartment building sent about 60 people fleeing from their homes, a fire official said.

Flames were shooting up three balconies at 24 Country Club Drive when the first fire truck arrived on the scene after numerous 911 calls were received just after 3 a.m. A second-alarm was quickly sounded and firefighters went into rescue mode, entering the Hilltop Apartment building to make sure everyone got out safely. The third alarm brought in all off-duty firefighters.

No one was reported injured. Fire officials said this morning the cause was a cigarette carelessly disposed on a first-floor porch. Damage estimates are between $750,000 and $1 million, according to a release and fire officials on scene.

The building contained 40 apartments, 38 of them occupied, according to a spokeman for the property owner.

Fire crews managed to save about two-thirds of the building, according to a fire official.