Make-shift memorials are starting to spring up at the scene of Thursday’s fire in Lowell that claimed seven lives.Sun staff photos can be ordered by
Make-shift memorials are starting to spring up at the scene of Thursday's fire in Lowell that claimed seven lives.

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LOWELL -- Investigators from different entities continued digging through the rubble Friday morning and early afternoon trying to determine a cause of the fire in a Branch Street apartment building that left seven dead.

Investigators were spotted climbing the back stairs of the building and spending time most of their time probing the second floor of the three-story building at 77-85 Branch St.

Officials from the State Fire Marshal's Office, Massachusetts State Police assigned to the Middlesex District Attorney's Office, as well as the Lowell Police and Fire Departments were on scene.

At least one official was also on scene from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, known as ATF.

Officials said Thursday they were examining the possibility fireworks in the building caused the fire.

Two Massachusetts Department of Fire Services Special Operations trailers were present, its rehab unit and its incident support unit.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan's Office released a statement early Friday evening that the cause and origin of the fire remain "undetermined and under investigation."

The fire-investigation team did sift through debris and make progress on their forensic scene examination, the statement said.

"The next phase of the investigation will involve team analysis of witness statements, records, and the scene examination," the statement from Ryan's Office said.


Former Lowell arson investigator Harold Waterhouse also stopped by to review the damage at Branch Street. He said it is hard work assessing what sparked a fire and that investigators always review potential accidental causes first.

"You have to eliminate the accidental causes," Waterhouse said. "That's the key. Then you go from there."

Waterhouse said high on the review list is whether a fire was an electrical one.

"Was there a short someplace?" Waterhouse said investigators ask. "It could have been smoldering for quite awhile and then let go."

Waterhouse investigated a 1982 fire in a Lowell tenement that killed eight people, including five children. The man investigators believed to be responsible was released on bail this week after a new trial was ordered.

Investigators said Thursday they were going to review the building's code-enforcement history, as well as any recent work done at the property.

The Sun learned Friday that when the property received rental unit permits in the winter 2013, not all of the nine units were inspected.

The amended rental property ordinance the City Council passed in the fall of 2012 does not require that all rental units in a building be inspected in buildings with six or more units.

At those properties, rental unit permits be granted for all units in a building after "an inspection of a sample of units consisting of no less than 10 percent or three of the rental units within the building, whichever is greater." The sample of units is chosen by the code-enforcement officer.

The three units inspected in March 2013 at 77-85 Branch were units 1, 2, and 6. All the building's units were given valid rental permits for three years. City code enforcement inspector Aurea Rivera inspected the the units at the Branch Street property.

Two electrical permits were pulled for work at the property last summer, according to city records provided by Eric Slagle, the director of Development Services.

Millenium Alarm of Leominster pulled a permit for work on the "low voltage fire alarm system."

Brian Catino, the owner of Millenium Alarm, said his company performed work last August in the weeks after there had been an electrical fire in the liquor store on the first floor of the building.

Catino said his company installed a horn strobe in the liquor store, as well as two in the basement. They also added an extra smoke detector in the basement.

Catino said the alarm system was functioning in the liquor store and basement, but his company did not go into the residential units on the floors above.

Investigators are probing whether the alarm system in the residential units was operable Thursday as they have received conflicting reports. 

Also last year, TJ Services Solutions of Chelmsford pulled an electrical permit with the work description stating "raised wall duplex receptor."

Meanwhile, some of those who escaped the blaze yesterday returned to near the scene to connect with friends and family.

Soth Sar, 43, was rescued along with four others from a smoldering apartment on the third floor. She and those she were with thought they were going to die.

Sar spent Thursday night at the Radisson in Nashua. Both late Thursday and early Friday she went shopping to buy new clothes with money from the Red Cross.

"I'm so proud they helped us," said Sar, saying she was grateful for the support, though she still felt sick about Thursday's events.

Follow Moran on Twitter @lylemoran