A few minutes later, his girlfriend, Lakeisha Mitchell, woke up and told him she could smell smoke.
About the same time, someone started pounding on their door, yelling there was smoke in the hallway of their four-story apartment house at 384 West Main St.
“We got out onto the fire escape, and the flames started shooting up,” Coates said.
“I had to carry her down the fire escape,” he said, gesturing to Lakeisha, who is five weeks pregnant with their first child.
“I carried her down, then I brought four little kids down and went in again,” Coates said.
“There were so many kids, I kept going in to help.”
Everyone that he and first responders assisted got to safety as firefighters from 17 Franklin County departments, five fire departments from St. Lawrence County and one from Clinton County poured into the village from all directions to help.
‘FULL OF SMOKE’
The couple sat on the stoop of the former Kriff’s Furniture Store building across the street from the fire site as volunteer firefighters continued to peel off strips of metal roofing more than nine hours after the blaze was first reported to Franklin County Fire Control.
“This whole place was full of smoke,” he said, raising his arms to indicate the two-lane passage of Main Street/Route 11, which is lined with tall, old buildings on each side.
Thirty people were sent to the Emergency Department at University of Vermont Health Network, Alice Hyde Medical Center to be checked out as a safety precaution.
Coates and Mitchell were medically cleared and left to come back downtown to see how badly the building was damaged.
“Luckily, nothing was wrong with us,” Coates said. “But all of our stuff is gone. Even my wallet’s up there.”
He had not been able to contact the American Red Cross for help because he had no minutes left on his pre-paid phone.
But across town where the Red Cross has established an emergency shelter at the Malone Adult Center, the aroma of goulash cooking and a cheery chalkboard sign encouraging people to grab a fresh cup of coffee greeted the nine victims being helped there.
All had just enough time to leave with the clothing or pajamas on their backs after being evacuated by firefighters and police.
Angela Dolan and her boyfriend, Richard Rhinehart, were being helped at the shelter. They lived on different floors of the adjoining apartment house to the immediate right of where the fatal fire occurred, so they aren’t sure how much smoke and water damage their belongings might have endured.
“We went outside and saw the flames, and people were running all over the place, trying to get out,” he said.
“It was a nightmare. I’m deathly afraid of fire. But my girlfriend’s front door goes right out to Main Street, so we got right out.”
“I’m just thankful everybody’s OK,” Rhinehart said. “I knew a lot of the people who lived there.”
He said a neighbor, Faye Fleury, was very upset at the scene because she had not been able to find her cat, but Dolan said the pet turned up safe a little later.
“It seems like we were lucky,” Dolan said. “Oh, it could have been such a disaster if anyone else had been hurt. I felt awful; I still feel awful about the whole thing,” she said.
“He just decided to stay with me. He wasn’t going to, but for some reason, we decide to stay together,” Dolan said.
“I was awake at 1:30 and heard a commotion in the back yard and didn’t know what it was. Then I saw somebody going down the fire escape, so I looked out the front window and saw the fire trucks.
“Seems like we were lucky,” she said. “But this is a sad time.”
The Red Cross will have the shelter open until at least Monday unless the fire victims can all be placed in other safe lodging before then, said Bridget Nelson, an AmeriCorps and Red Cross disaster-services volunteer.
Community members were already offering furniture and bringing bags of clothing to the Adult Center.
Director Paulette Dear said the agency was using the food planned for Monday’s Meals of Wheels and congregate-meal program to feed the fire victims and that an alternate menu will be created for those clients when the new week begins.
If the center is still needed as a shelter on Monday, when meals are typically served at the Route 30 site, the fire victims will be fed with the elderly patrons but the scheduled bridge card game will be postponed.
Sandro Colon, who lived on the third floor of the apartment house for about a year, was one of the people being helped at the shelter until he can figure out what he is going to do next.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” he said of the fire’s destruction.
“We may have lost all of our belongings. We may have to start all over again.”
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