A tranquil setting turns suddenly into rescue scene

A firefighter made his way down the ladder after inspecting the wind-damaged facade of the 10-story Olympia Tower residence in New Bedford yesterday. A firefighter made his way down the ladder after inspecting the wind-damaged facade of the 10-story Olympia Tower residence in New Bedford yesterday. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / August 29, 2011

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NEW BEDFORD - Just after 1 p.m. yesterday, Janet Hatcher was chatting on the telephone with her daughter about how this seaside city seemed to have dodged the worst of Tropical Storm Irene. From her apartment in Olympia Tower, it seemed there was hardly a breeze.

Then she heard a loud bang. A wind gust had pried off a slab from the building’s facade and hurled it to the ground, nicking her window on the way down.

The next thing she knew, everyone in the 10-story building for the elderly and disabled was evacuating to a church across the street.

“I was having such a lovely time in my house,’’ Hatcher said, a little forlornly, sitting in a church pew across the street with her emergency bag packed with medicine, her Bible, and her purse. “Nothing was happening. The sun was shining. . . . And then suddenly this big piece of debris hit my window and fell down to the ground.’’

The evacuation of dozens of residents from Olympia Tower was the most challenging rescue in a city with many low-lying areas that are vulnerable to flooding.

Here, Irene was a deceptive storm that at times seemed mild, but also proved dangerous and unpredictable.

Winds downed 225 trees across the city, blocking streets and snapping electrical wires, sparking at least one fire.

Surging seas swallowed up the beaches, while about 13,000 homes, and City Hall, were left at least temporarily without electricity. Most had not been restored by last night.

No deaths or injuries were reported in the Southeastern Massachusetts city of about 100,000 residents, a feat Mayor Scott W. Lang attributed to cautious planning and residents taking heed of the many warnings to stay off the roads and away from the surging ocean.

“I think they took this seriously,’’ he said. “They stayed home.’’

He estimated the city suffered more than $1 million in damage.

By midday, after a wet, blustery morning, the storm had quieted and few people had sought refuge at the Keith Middle School or other shelters.

But at a news conference around that time, Lang warned people not to be fooled by the lull. He said the city was about to get its second round from the storm.

A minute later, an aide whispered in his ear about Olympia Tower.

The hardest hit was a fifth-floor corner resident who calls herself only Star.

A gentle 67-year-old with an array of tattoos and long gray hair, she was sitting in her apartment with her companion, Ray Landry, 69, and their cat Bastet, when she heard a loud cracking sound from the wall facing the street.

Then a whoosh of air made her ears pop as the window came loose.

They called maintenance workers, who called for help. The cat ran to its hiding place.

Then, just after 1 p.m., the window blew off the building. Gusting winds also peeled off a section of the facade and it fell with a smash to the ground. Feathery insulation followed, swirling in the rain-slicked streets.

Inside the apartment, Star and Landry rushed to find the cat, grab a few belongings, and head downstairs.

Rescue workers took them to the Keith Middle School and later to a local hotel.

In all, about 14 people in the 90-unit building had to be relocated, while the rest were allowed to return to their units, said Fire Captain Brian J. Arruda.

Star, who was badly injured in a motorcycle accident many years ago, walks with a cane.

“That was my apartment. It’s laying on the ground,’’ she said as she rested in a wheelchair at the school, where a shelter worker gave her a hug.

“It’s scary, very scary,’’ she added. “I don’t think me and Ray and the cat will ever sleep sound again.’’

Landry said he was relieved that nobody was hurt when the debris fell.

“Thank God nobody was injured,’’ he said. “You just got to be prepared for the hurricanes, don’t you?’’

Olympia Tower residents said they are a close-knit group, helping one another partly because they know what it is like to feel alone. Their children have grown and moved away, or their spouses or siblings have died.

Yesterday, residents gathered in the lobby and waited for rescue workers to usher them to the Pilgrim United Church of Christ across the street. They waited for more than an hour, cooled by fans, until finding out if they could return to their apartments or would have to go elsewhere.

Louise Ellis, 62, lives several floors above the damage on the same side of the building that peeled apart. She said she did not mind having to evacuate.

“I feel bad that it happened but what can I say? It’s Mother Nature,’’ she said. “What can we do about it?’’

Tony Ramos, 68, a new resident, said he was allowed to return to his apartment on the fifth floor away from the damage.

“I haven’t finished moving in yet and the building’s falling apart,’’ he grumbled good-naturedly.

Most residents said they did not hear the commotion from the damage. At one moment, they were watching the news about the storm just like everyone else - and the next thing the knew, they were part of it.

“I’m just glad it’s over,’’ said Ruth Roberts, 83, who lives down the hall from Star but did not know that she should evacuate until her daughter heard about the debris on a police scanner and called her. “It’s too close for comfort.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at