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Tenants returning to their Emerson Place homes after fire

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Most of the displaced families were expected to be back in their homes by Monday night after a weekend fire gutted one apartment and damaged four others in a building at Emerson Place.

With cleanup beginning early Monday, just the apartment where the blaze began Saturday night will remain uninhabitable, said Gary C. Beasley, executive director of Neighbors of Watertown, the nonprofit housing agency that operates the apartment building off State Street.

About 20 people were left temporarily displaced from the row houses, but no one was injured. Three families were going to return home Monday and a fourth by the end of the week, Mr. Beasley said.

“It could have been much worse,” said Mr. Beasley said. “I’m just glad nobody was injured.”

He said the blaze started in the basement at Apt. 23 and spread into the first-floor kitchen area and then the attic before being contained by firefighters. The other four apartments sustained smoke and water damage and lost electrical power.

Fire investigators continue to focus on the area near the clothes dryer in the Apt. 23 basement as the origin of the blaze, though no official ruling has been made. City Fire Chief Dale C. Herman said an electrical problem, a mechanical problem with the dryer or improper use of the appliance could have been the cause.

Improvements made after Neighbors of Watertown bought the building in 2003 helped keep the blaze from spreading throughout the 11-apartment complex, Mr. Beasley said. This was the first major fire that the organization has experienced.

Insurance will pay for the repairs, Mr. Beasley said, adding that the agency will help tenants replace belongings lost in the fire.

The American Red Cross of Northern New York also has come forward to help tenants until they can return to their homes, said Kelly E. Hecker, emergency services manager for the Red Cross regional district. Neighbors of Watertown arranged for tenants to stay two nights at a hotel, and the Red Cross covered a third night. As per Red Cross policy, the agency helps to provide immediate emergency shelter for up to 72 hours.

“Our follow-up is what we do best,” Mrs. Hecker said. “We maintain contact with a client until they say, ‘You know what? I don’t need assistance from the Red Cross.’ We help point them in the right directions.”

The Red Cross also may provide the first month’s rent or a security deposit toward a new place to live if the family cannot return to Emerson Place.

The row apartment house and nearly a dozen nearby homes were renovated as part of the $4.1 million Emerson Place project a decade ago.

Times staff writer Rebecca Madden contributed to this report.

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