In a flash fire that roared through the top floor of a West Somerville house, a Vietnamese floor sander was killed and three others were burned yesterday on their first day of work on the job.
The three injured men raced out of the burning three-family building in a desperate search for help. One of the men was on fire, his clothes melting from the flames, according to an off-duty Somerville firefighter who was cutting grass at a relative's home nearby. The firefighter, unaware that a fourth victim was still inside, grabbed a garden hose and doused the most gravely injured man, who was screaming in pain and suffered burns on 80 to 100 percent of his body, fire officials said.
The worker who was killed was apparently trapped inside, his body found near a doorway.
''I was trying to find out if there were more people in there, but I couldn't get a number out of them," said Elliot Kerner, a Somerville firefighter for more than 20 years, who rushed to the scene when he saw the flames. ''I don't know if they understood what I was saying."
The three rescued workers, who do not speak English, were taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where two of them were in critical condition, according to fire officials. The injuries to the other man did not appear to be life-threatening. Officials would not release the names of the victims until they had notified relatives.
The four men, employed by David's Floor Service of Somerville, were laying a sealer coat of a chemical used to dry polyurethane finish on floors. Officials were still trying to pinpoint the cause of the fire, and determine which chemical the workers were using, but believe that the highly flammable material somehow caught fire and set off the sudden blaze around 12:50 p.m.
State Fire Marshall Stephen Coan said last night that his office is investigating the cause.
Firefighters from Somerville, Boston, Malden, and other towns responded to the fire, which caused extensive damage to the neatly tended house at the corner of Foskett Street and Willow Avenue. One Somerville firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation.
The owners of the house, who live on the first floor and were home at the time of the fire, would not comment. The second-floor resident was not at home when the fire broke out. The third floor, where the four-man crew had been working, was vacant and under renovation.
For hours after the fire, dozens of neighbors milled around the scene, staring at the house, where a large section of the roof was burned and the second- and third-floors windows had been smashed by firefighters. Charred debris was scattered along the side of the house. Two white vans, which had been driven by the victims and were filled with floor sanders and floor finishing materials, were parked in the driveway.
As news of the fatal fire spread through the Vietnamese community yesterday, activists and others sought to learn the victims' names and raised concerns about the dangers of an industry that is often an employment magnet for many recently arrived Vietnamese immigrants.
The newcomers accept the hard labor and exposure to sometimes dangerous chemicals in exchange for steady work and a decent paycheck.
''The harder we do, the more money we earn," said Diane Huynh, Boston liaison to the Vietnamese community. ''It's good money, good cash, provides for family kids, and provides for their dreams to come true. Unfortunately, this is very bad news."
Huong Nguyen, director of economic development for Viet-Aid, a social-service agency in Dorchester, has been conducting an outreach effort to educate Vietnamese workers about the hazards of chemicals used in refinishing floors.
In addition to the desirable pay, Nguyen said, Vietnamese newcomers who speak little or no English can often find easy access to work in the flooring trade, where many small companies are owned by more established Vietnamese immigrants.
Nguyen estimated that about 127 of the 144 registered flooring contractors in the city are Vietnamese; about 70 are based in Dorchester.
The owner of David's Floor Service, listed in corporate records as David Dang of Somerville, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Jean Carmel St. Juste, immigrant safety work coordinator with MassCOSH, which tracks cases of worker injuries and deaths in Massachusetts, said he did not know of other fires or fatalities involving flooring workers in the state.
However, Vivian Lu, marketing director of Capitol Wood Floor Supply, said the polyurethane used in flooring work is extremely flammable and highly sensitive to high temperatures.
Lu, who sells wood and other flooring materials to contractors, said she cautions her customers and employees to take special care in handling the chemical, which she said could be ignited by long exposure to strong sunlight or by the heat of a particularly warm summer day.
Lu cited at least two other minor fires involving the chemical, including one in her own warehouse.
''A lot of the workers are fairly new and inexperienced," said Lu. ''It is a dangerous job."