Fire chief: No working smoke alarms in apartment building that burned

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Investigators are looking into what caused an early morning fire in Harrisburg Tuesday that damaged six apartments and a grocery store.

As firefighters praised a teenager and others who may have saved lives, they also lamented the fact that they didn’t hear any working smoke alarms when they arrived, which they say could have been fatal.

“I don’t know what happened,” William Mercado said.

He lives in one of the third-floor apartments with his wife and granddaughter. Their little dog helped wake them when the fire started around 3:30 a.m.

“I go to the door and I couldn’t get out because I got hit with the smoke,” Mercado said in Spanish. “That’s when I knew this was a real fire.”

A teenager and others in the neighborhood knocked on doors and windows, climbing the fire escape to get to some of the apartments, waking people to get them out.

No one was hurt.

“Had it not been for them,” Fire Chief Brian Enterline said, “we’d probably be looking at fatalities because we did not have any working smoke alarms in the apartments.”

“Thank God my girls got out safely,” Mercado said, fighting off tears.

Workers cleaned up the grocery store Tuesday morning, tearing down ceiling tiles and filling a pickup truck with trash. The store just opened about a week and a half ago.

Now investigators are left wondering why they heard no working smoke alarms when they got there. The devices are required by law in common areas, like hallways and stairwells, and in bedrooms.

“That’s what alerts you,” Enterline said. “That’s what gets you out of the buildings so that you don’t end up becoming a statistic and a fatality.”

The building’s owners say they have alarms, but some tenants take out the batteries.

The owners also said one of the tenants strung an extension cord from their window across the street to provide power elsewhere. It’s not clear if that played a role in the fire.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

“Everything is destroyed upstairs,” Mercado said, still in Spanish. “We have to go to a hotel today.”

At least five other people were living in the building at the time, bringing the total to eight people displaced including Mercado and his family, the owners said.

Now they have to rebuild.

“I guess it’s just destiny,” Mercado said. “We have to thank God we’re alive.”

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