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Quincy fire consumes life made anew in US

Apartment where immigrant, 2 sons died had no alarm

March 26, 2009
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This story was reported by Brian Ballou, Michael Levenson, and Maria Sacchetti of the Globe staff and written by Levenson.

QUINCY - Oudah Frawi fled Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991. He was sent for nearly a decade to live in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, then was moved to Canada, before finally settling in a cramped basement apartment on a quiet side street in Quincy. He pumped gas 12 hours a day, fell in love with a woman from the American heartland, and saw the birth of two sons. It was a hard life, but one that, his friends said, gave him more happiness than he had ever known.

But that all ended at 3 a.m. yesterday, when a sofa in his apartment erupted in flames and released thick, toxic smoke. Frawi and his sons, 1-year-old Ali Oudah and 2-month-old Hassan, were killed. His wife, Terri Knight, was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital, but it was not clear if she would survive.

Fifteen residents who lived in the upper floors of the six-unit house - most of them immigrants from the Middle East who work as cooks, taxi drivers, and gas station attendants - grabbed their children and frantically rushed from the building. One tenant, Mostafa Oubtrou, called police on his daughter's cellphone and pounded on the Frawis' basement door.

"I know they have a baby," said Oubtrou, a cook at Harvard University who lived in an attic apartment with his wife and two daughters, ages 10 and 23 months. "So I say, 'Open! Open! Open!' "

But the door didn't budge. When firefighters arrived moments later, they broke down the Frawis' basement door and, after fighting their way through the smoke, carried out the victims' bodies.

Mohammed Rhemmes, who lives on the second floor of the house on Roberston Street, said he saw a firefighter emerge from the basement apartment with the 1-year-old cradled in his arms. They brought Frawi out on a stretcher, his body wrapped in a black cover.

"It's terrible what happened to them," said Rhemmes, who said he helped authorities identify the victims in photographs taken of the bodies inside the apartment. "I feel so sad for the family."

Officials later said that there were no smoke alarms in the apartment, which they said had been added illegally to a house sanctioned for only four units. The house had smoke alarms in the hallways as required by state law, but they had been switched off, apparently by accident. In addition, city officials said that if they had known the house had six units, they would have required the owner to install sprinklers, in accordance with state building codes. Quincy officials, who recently learned of the extra units in the building, had scheduled an inspection for tomorrow.

No foul play was suspected in the blaze, but yesterday officials would not rule out the possibility of criminal charges because of the number of apartments and the lack of working smoke alarms.

"Any time there are smoke alarm systems that do not operate, that is a concern," state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan told reporters outside the house. "Any time the building may have operated beyond what it was permitted to operate with, that is a concern to us."

The owners of the building, Jinny Xiu Ma and Andy Huang, would not discuss the fire when reached by phone yesterday.

Frawi's oddysey to the United States and the new life he struggled to begin here started when he fled Nasiriya, Iraq, as a young student in 1991, along with fellow Shi'ite Muslims who were persecuted under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.

He went first to an American-run refugee camp on the Saudi Arabian border, where he earned a reputation as a dazzling soccer player. "He was very famous there," said Faiez Al-Hamdini, who lived with Frawi in the camp.

After eight years in the camp, he was resettled in Canada by the United Nations, friends said. Six years ago, he came to Quincy, finding a small, close-knit community of Iraqi immigrants who gave him friendship, support, and a place to pray. Three years ago, he met Knight, an Oklahoman, through a telephone dating service, and the two were attracted from the first date, said a friend, Mudafer Alziyadi.

Knight converted to Islam and adopted the traditional headscarf, said Khalid al-Rahamwi, another friend, who described the two as a "perfect couple."

Frawi worked six days a week pumping gas in Weymouth. He did his job amid snow and freezing cold so he could send money to relatives in Iraq and buy necessities for his family in America, said Hussain al-Shimari, who lived with Frawi for eight years until just this week.

"We lived in the same house, but we didn't see much of each other because we were working so much, and when he had kids, he spent all of his free time with them," said Shimari, who moved to Weymouth Sunday. "He loved those children and his wife."

Standing behind the cash register at the Weymouth gas station where he works, Shimari struggled yesterday with the fact that his life had been narrowly spared while his friend's had not.

"I feel terrible that my good friend has died and that his children are gone," Shimari said, his words translated into English by a friend. "I'm lucky that I wasn't there when the fire happened, but all I feel is sadness."

Saturdays, Frawi prayed with fellow Iraqis at a makeshift mosque in Quincy Center, but mostly his friends recalled him working long hours.

"I saw him suffering so much to support his family," said Alziyadi, who had known Frawi for four years. "He would work in the cold, freezing, day and night, and he still had trouble paying for minimum, basic things. My heart goes out to his family back home. His mother hasn't seen him since he left in '91, and I'm not sure she will get the chance to see his body."

Mark Pierce, a second-floor tenant in the same building with the Frawis, said he had been touched by small gestures from the family.

"My wife went down to visit them when they brought the newborn home a little while back, and it's just tragic," said Pierce, who works at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "He was a nice guy. When it snowed, everybody pitched in and helped clean out the parking lot, and he was like, 'No, you're kind of old, man, so let me help you out.' "

Yesterday afternoon, as emergency workers boarded up shattered windows and the apartment's broken-down door, Iraqi men in white skullcaps and women wearing headscarves stood outside, staring grimly.

Some were residents of the building, but others came as word of the deaths spread through the mosque where they prayed. Some tried to reach Frawi's relatives in Iraq by cellphone.

At the gas station in Weymouth, Shimari struggled to find words.

"They were a very happy family," he said. "Even though they did not have much, they had each other. The last time I saw him, I returned on Sunday to pick up my stuff. I said goodbye and told him to take care of himself and his family."

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