By Katharine Webster
For eight people who lived in a duplex near four UML fraternity houses behind North Campus, it turned out to be a blessing that the “Greeks” stayed up late on a frigid February night.
Rohan Solanki was shooting pool in Sigma Phi Omicron’s “game room” – a repurposed garage behind its house on Plymouth Street – around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11, when someone banged on the door and yelled, “A house is on fire!”
Solanki ran outside to see flames consuming the roof of a house on Mount Hope Street, behind the fraternity’s backyard.
“I saw smoke coming this way, with red flames … and sparks flying off the telephone pole like fireworks,” says Solanki, a junior business major from Tyngsboro, Massachusetts.
Arseniy Ohorilko, a first-year computer science major from Needham, Massachusetts, who is in the same fraternity, ran past Solanki and squeezed through a gap between fences into their neighbor Trevor Berry’s backyard. Solanki followed, and they ran onto Mount Hope Street. There, they saw that the front of No. 21, the duplex next door to Berry’s house, was on fire.
“The first and second floors were completely ablaze,” Ohorilko says.
“Even before we got there, we were yelling, ‘Wake up! Wake up! Your house is on fire!’” Solanki says.
Ohorilko sprinted over to the other side of the duplex, where there is a small side porch with two doors. An elderly woman was exiting the sliding glass door to the first-floor apartment, and he asked her if anyone else was in the house. She said yes. He directed her toward the street, opened the slider and went inside.
He had no flashlight or phone and he couldn’t see, so after yelling to wake people up, he stepped back onto the porch – just as Solanki shattered a small window in the other door, at the bottom of the back staircase for the upstairs apartment.
“I could see people through the window, and I was wondering why they couldn’t open the door,” Solanki says. “I couldn’t open it from the outside and they couldn’t open it from the inside, so I made the executive decision to kick the window out.”
He and Ohorilko cleared the broken glass and pulled people through the window frame, one at a time. Neither one remembers how many people they rescued, but Lowell Fire Department investigators say eight people from two families, the Kaweres and the Silveras, were displaced by the fire.
While Solanki and Ohorilko helped the residents, Michael Ripley, a sophomore biology major in Delta Kappa Phi, on the other side of Berry’s house, arrived and began throwing things off the porch to clear the area.
Ripley had been getting ready for bed when he heard one of the Sigma Phi Omicron brothers yell, “Call 911!” as he ran through Berry’s backyard, so Ripley did just that. Then he dressed and ran to help.
Once the window was clear, Ripley kicked in the door and ran halfway up the back stairs, yelling, “Hey, is anybody here?” A man followed him and said, “I live here, and everyone’s out.” They both left the building.
Meanwhile, Delta Kappa Phi’s President Samuel Cullinan and its vice president, Omar Lahlaf, had noticed that the fire was threatening Berry’s house. They persuaded the 79-year-old Berry to leave and stopped him from going back inside, Ripley says.
But Berry’s dog bolted and tried to hide behind the house, where more members of Delta Kappa Phi were using pans and buckets of water to extinguish burning embers. They brought the dog to the street to safely reunite it with Berry.
Members of Sigma Tau Gamma, next door to the duplex, and Omicron Pi, across the street, were also filling buckets with water in case the wind shifted and sent burning embers into other yards.
Soon, city firefighters arrived, and the fraternity brothers stood back. Kieran DeLacy, a junior mechanical engineering major from Reading, Massachusetts, and a member of Omicron Pi, saw that several of the fire victims huddled in the street were shivering in their pajamas.
“I went inside and grabbed a few extra sweatshirts, and I grabbed some pants for one of them and some socks as well. It was pretty cold, in the 30s,” he says.
One fraternity member had another idea: The fraternities should check their security camera footage. Later that morning, they did – and several cameras showed a man climbing steps from the street, pulling up a high school graduation sign on the duplex’s front lawn, going under the front porch and lighting it on fire, then strolling away. The fraternities provided the footage to police and fire investigators.
Without the camera footage, the cause of the fire would have been put down as “undetermined,” but now it is being investigated as suspected arson, fire investigators say. The front half of the duplex was completely destroyed, with total damage estimated at $700,000, and Berry also is displaced while his house is being repaired.
The Kawere and Silvera families are being assisted by the Red Cross and separate GoFundMe campaigns, to which the fraternities are contributing while sharing them widely on social media.
Michael Kennedy, assistant director of Student Activities and Leadership, works closely with UML’s six fraternities and four sororities to provide support, develop members as campus leaders and offer preventive trainings about substance use, hazing, sexual assault and mental health first aid. He says he’s immensely proud of the students and how they have come together to support their displaced neighbors.
“We always hear so much negative about fraternity life across the country,” he says. “I wanted to share this story to let people know that our students are really great.”
The students took various lessons away from the fire. Solanki immediately got rid of his space heater – and said he, too, was proud of how all the fraternities came together to help.
Ripley, who had always wondered whether he’d have a “fight or flight” reaction in an emergency, now knows the answer. He says he didn’t even think before running toward the fire and into the burning house.
“A lot of people are talking about how heroic it is, but genuinely, I’d like to think that anyone would have done this,” says Ripley, a first-generation student from Tewksbury, Massachusetts. “It was a really sad night, definitely a really intense night, and I just hope these families are able to get back on their feet.”