Even while scrambling to save her son, her pets and herself from a fast-moving blaze that consumed her apartment building and killed her upstairs neighbor Wednesday night, Christine Pasquarelli said she noticed an obvious void.
"I never heard her voice," Pasquarelli said of Desiree Harrison, 31, who died in the fire.
Fire officials and neighbors have said that Harrison left the burning building, but then returned. Pasquarelli remembered that she thought it strange that she didn't hear Harrison, who had lived in the building for about five years and cared for those around her.
"She would have yelled for everybody to get out of this building. She would have been at the forefront of that. She wouldn't have left nobody in this building, not Desiree," Pasquarelli said.
It was unclear what compelled Harrison to run back inside. Fire Chief Edward Casares Jr. said she either went back for her two pit bulls or to search for her 11-year-old daughter, who had already left the building.
"She was outside and she did re-enter," Casares said.
The fire's cause was accidental, he said — a space heater placed too close to a mattress, allowing it to catch fire. The tenant of that apartment tried to put the fire out himself, Casares said.
"He attempted to extinguish it and there was a delay in calling the fire department," he said. "When we arrived, there was a large amount of fire."
The delay in calling 911 enabled the flames at 28 Putnam Heights to get a head start on firefighters. The building was destroyed and will be razed in the next few days, Casares said.
Jose Martinez, who lived on the third-floor of the six-unit building, said he was watching a movie when he heard the fire alarm in the hallway go off. He opened the door, saw smoke and left the building.
On his way out, he saw Harrison coming out of her apartment.
"She made it out before me. I saw her outside. I don't know how she managed to get back in," Martinez said.
Pasquarelli, who lived on the first floor, said she was about to go to bed when she heard the fire alarm in the hallway before 10:30 p.m. She opened her front door and saw flames and black smoke at the top of the stairs.
The fire, she said, started in the second-floor unit above hers. Pasquarelli grabbed her son, her Chihuahua and her miniature pinscher and brought them outside. She ran back inside for her three cats, but left when she realized that she couldn't catch them.
Harrison's daughter, she said, was on the porch of a building across the street. But Pasquarelli didn't see Harrison.
She said that she and neighbors watched the flames through the second-floor windows. The blaze moved from one side of the building to the other and then whipped around the corner. Flames came out of the windows and quickly ran up to the third floor, she said.
"It looked like hell. I'd never seen a fire move so fast or get so big," she said.
Pasquarelli described Harrison as a cheerful and beautiful person who would have given anybody her last dollar if they needed it.
The fire is the second fatal fire in Hartford in a week. On Saturday, Herman Cameron, 73, was killed in a fire at 483 Albany Ave. Fire officials said that the fire was determined to be arson. Hartford police detectives and the city and state fire marshals are investigating.
In Hamden, a father of three was killed Thursday morning as he tried to make sure that his family was out of their burning home, fire officials said.
His three children and wife escaped the burning Grandview Avenue home, but the father was overcome by smoke. Firefighters got the man out of the house and performed CPR in an attempt to revive him, but he died at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
His children and wife were taken to a hospital for treatment. The father's name was not released, although firefighters said that he was 50.
There were reports that two of the children jumped out a window to escape the flames.
The fire marshal has begun an investigation into the fire's cause. The fire is believed to have started in the first-floor living room, officials said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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