Devastating New Year’s Day fire in Fall River kills two,
leaves dozens homeless including diocesan deacon

Catholic Social Services and Assonet parish quickly organize assistance plans

By Dave Jolivet
Anchor Editor

FALL RIVER, Mass. ­— Just hours into 2019 an out-of-control car carrying two sisters plunged into building 15 of Four Winds Apartments on North Main Street in Fall River, breaking a natural gas line and sparking a conflagration that quickly took on a life of its own.

Nearly 80 people were evacuated as a precaution when the accident took place at about 9:45 a.m., not realizing none of them would ever see their homes again.

Five members of St. Bernard’s Parish in Assonet were among the dozens who lost everything in the fire, including a 10-year-old girl and her mother and a diocesan permanent deacon and his wife.

Less than a day later Catholic Social Services was gathering with civic groups to organize assistance plans, and St. Bernard’s gathered a committee to find ways to help their fellow parishioners. 

“I was celebrating the 9 a.m. Mass that morning and immediately after I was called to the scene,” St. Bernard’s pastor Father Michael S. Racine told The Anchor. Father Racine is the chaplain of the Fall River Fire Department. “I’m still overwhelmed,” he said days following the tragedy just three miles from his parish.

“By the time I arrived on the scene the two victims in the car had been taken out. I spent the next several hours just meeting with the families who had been evacuated, providing whatever comfort I could, and just being there for the firefighters. This was a very difficult fire to knock down and the firefighters were exhausted.”

In all, eight firefighters and one resident were brought to the hospital for heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation for the most part.

“Six of the firefighters remained in the hospital,” added Father Racine. “I went and visited with them on Wednesday (January 2). Fortunately there were no critical cases involved.”

Initially, the fire was contained to a portion of the large building containing 36 apartment units. However unfortunate circumstances made it extremely dangerous to fight the fire from within, forcing the fire crews to battle from the exterior.

The fire continued to spread and those who left thinking they would be able to return their homes lost everything when the fire refused to be extinguished.

Father Racine added, “It was a very difficult day. There were so many things going on. My role is to be there to support the victims and the responders. I don’t want to get in the way, but I want to be there when needed.

“At one point during the afternoon, the fire department was able to collect the keys to the apartments of those who had evacuated to go in and retrieve pets and medicines. That was it. Pets and medicines. But after a while there was just so much water in the apartments, feet of water, that the crews had to leave.”

Father Racine told The Anchor that it must be noted that these people, including the St. Bernard’s  parishioners, have lost absolutely everything.

“A woman came up to me at one point during the day and told me she had lost three pets. She asked me if I could just stay and talk to her for a while. Those are members of the family.

“I stayed at the scene from about 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. when things appeared to be contained,” said Father Racine. “But I received a call to return when the fire erupted once again at about 9 p.m. I spent several hours more at the scene being there for the firefighters.

“It’s all part of the job, and I had a great teacher,” Father Racine told The Anchor, referencing the late Msgr. Thomas J. Harrington, long-time chaplain of the FRFD.

Within days Father Racine and his parishioners took a proactive approach to helping the victims.

“It’s ironic,” said Father Racine. “On the Sunday, a few days before the fire, I preached on family for the feast of the Holy Family. I spoke of how family, whether it’s blood or community, is there to help one another. Little did I know that we would have to act so quickly.”

“Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia and the community development office called Catholic Social Services and some other community partners to attend meetings on January 3 and 4 to organize some resources for the families who lost everything in the fire,” Susan Mazzarella, diocesan director of Catholic Social Services told The Anchor.  

Those present on January 3 were, from the Fall River Government: Jasiel Correia, Monica Sousa, Mike Dion; Fall River Fire Department/Fire Fighters Wives: Rick Aguiar-FRFD, James Furtado-FRFD/FFW,  Sharron Furtado-FFW; United Way of Greater Fall River: Rachael Sirois; and Journey Christian Church: Pastor Mike Pudlo.

Agencies that were there included: the Red Cross, Salvation Army, FR Family Resource Center, Liberty Utilities, Four Winds Management, FR Health Department, WIC, Fall River Re-Creation.

“There were 36 units that were destroyed in the fire,” said Mazzarella. “The fire happened so quickly and so intensely that the majority of the victims are only left, literally, with the clothing they were wearing on Tuesday morning.  

“Of the 36 households affected four families were able to be re-housed in the other Four Winds building where there were vacancies. The owner of the property, Claremont Management provided each tenant with $750 cash the day of the fires in addition to the $125 cash from the Red Cross. 

“Only about nine of the households had renter’s insurance policies. There are three families staying in hotels, and the remaining tenants are staying with friends and family.”

A group of St. Bernard’s parishioners met with Father Racine within days and established a St. Bernard’s Parish Fire Relief Fund.

A letter was inserted in the parish bulletin the weekend of January 5 and 6 indicating: “There are envelopes located at each entrance to the church marked ‘Fire Relief Fund.’ Use the envelopes to enclose cash, checks payable to ‘St. Bernard’s Church,’ or gift cards and either place in the collection basket or drop off at the church office during regular hours. You can also mail your donation directly to the church at St. Bernard’s Church, Attn: Fire Relief Fund, P.O. Box 370, Assonet, Mass 02702.”

Suggested gift cards are: Visa, American Express, Target, Kohl’s, Walmart, CVS, Market Basket, and gas cards.

The parish also organized two spaghetti suppers with all of the proceeds going to fire relief. The suppers will take place in the church hall on January 18 at 6 p.m. and on January 19 at 5 p.m.

On Sunday, January 6 Catholic Social Services joined with other local agencies for sessions, held at Fall River City Hall, to offer assistance and information to the victims. There to help and the services provided were: 

— Catholic Social Services  — Rapid Re-Housing funds up to the Federal Maximum of $4,000 per family ($2,000 if the family has housing subsidy); 

— the United Way — money to replace driver’s licenses and IDs;

— Fall River Food Bank/Local Pantries-Emergency food when the family re-establishes a permanent residence;

— a local area locksmith to help the majority of car owners who lost their keys, fobs, etc. to the fire, and;

— Journey Christian Church — clothing.

Mazzarella told The Anchor, “Four Winds, which is owned by Claremont Management (this is Pat Carney of the Carney Foundation’s company) has really stepped up to support the residents effected by this. The day of the fire, they gave each household $750 and today they are providing an additional $2,800 to each household. 

“The fire department stated today that this is an incredible action from a landlord and their cooperation has been extraordinary.”

Ways to help the fire victims include:

— American Red Cross Disaster Relief. Visit, call 1-800-564-1234, or text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

— Gift-card donations can be brought to Mike Dion’s office at Room 414 in Government Center in Fall River. 

— The Fall River Firefighters Wives Association initiated a GoFundMe page online to help the victims. The site reads: “In the early morning of the first day of 2019, a fire ripped through Building 15 in Four Winds Condos. Forty-five people have been displaced and have lost everything they own. Some have lost their pets and are still searching for them.

“Please consider donating to this fund-raiser, no amount it too small, everything helps!

“Donations can be made here or gift cards and monetary donations can be dropped off at Fall River Fire Headquarters at 140 Commerce Drive, Fall River, Mass., from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. We are a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization that helps displaced families recover from fire related losses. All donations are tax-deductible.”

Donations to the Fall River Firefighters Wives Association’s fund for the Four Winds Fire can also be made at any St. Anne’s Credit Union branch. 

Checks can also be sent via U.S. Mail to Firefighters Wives Association, Inc., P.O. Box 423, Somerset, Mass., 02726.

Monetary and gift card donations may also be hand-delivered to the Fall River Fire Department Headquarters at 140 Commerce Drive in Fall River. 

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts