Image: Fire officials examine burned building
Stew Milne  /  AP
Fire Chaplains look at the burned remains of a three-story building on County Street in Fall River, Mass., where four people died and at least 11 others were injured, Wednesday.
updated 6/15/2006 2:55:51 PM ET 2006-06-15T18:55:51

A deadly fire that scorched a community center during a prayer service started when candles ignited crepe paper decorations set up for a weekend festival, fire officials said Thursday.

People in the hall tried to extinguish the flames themselves before calling for help late Wednesday, Fire Chief David Thiboutot said.

Four people were killed and at least a dozen were injured.

The flames broke out as members of the Our Lady of Light Society were praying in preparation for a Portuguese religious festival this weekend in this coastal city, which has an active, deep-rooted Portuguese community.

Thirty people were in the three-story building when someone lighting candles dropped a lit taper onto a decorated shrine in the ground-floor community hall, Deputy Fire Chief William Silvia said.

‘All I saw was smoke’
Nelson Raposo, 31, who lives in a second-floor apartment above the hall, said an explosion rattled his floor before sunset.

“We just heard the big bang and felt the pressure,” said Raposo. “I opened the front door, but all I saw was smoke.”

As the smoke rose in the hallway, Raposo led his family out a window and onto the roof. The family had to climb down through a tent that had been set up in the back parking lot for the festival.

Another neighbor, David Martin, 31, said he saw a man fleeing the three-story structure with his shirt on fire. The man screamed that his wife was trapped, and he tried to run back inside before he was stopped by firefighters, Martin said.

‘They didn’t have a chance
The four dead were found on the first floor. At least 10 community members and two firefighters were taken to hospitals with burns.

“They didn’t have a chance,” Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. said.

Police blocked off streets surrounding the building. Neighbors gathered at the yellow caution tape, some whispering in Portuguese and weeping.

Fall River is 20 miles southeast of Providence, R.I. Almost half of it 92,000 residents claim Portuguese heritage, according to the 2000 Census.

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