Fatal fire investigation continues as family and friends grieve loss

GROTON — Just five days until Christmas and we know that four families are without a place to call home. It’s the result of a deadly apartment fire in Groton.

The families are made up of five adults and six kids. The Red Cross put them up in the Super 8 Motel in town, but they are hoping to get them into vacant apartments within a day so they can start to get back on their feet.

Friends and strangers gathered outside the Branford Manor Apartments building #37 to offer support Thursday. Together, they constructed and placed a makeshift memorial at the site, where loved ones say 31-year-old Ana Berroa lost her life the evening prior.

Ana's boyfriend told FOX 61 off-camera that the troubled mother of two locked herself inside the apartment and proceeded to throw the Christmas tree out the window — before setting the apartment on fire. The children were luckily saved.

“All I know is she was a good spirited person,” said Kevin Stamps.

Stamps used buckets to try and douse the flames, but they were too intense, even for first responders.

“My friend came, saved the kids. Put them in the car. Immediately tried to get through the door. Banging on it to break the locks. Finally we broke the locks, the flames came out,” said Stamps.

The heartbreaking tragedy gave way to a small miracle the very next day; a silver lining for family and friends, who had just begun to grieve for their loss. A terrier puppy named Max managed to find his way home after running away scared amid the chaos of the blaze. He was spotted by police in the charred apartment and kept safe until he was back in the arms of his grateful owner.

“I am so thankful to have him right now. I don’t have any words. Anything else I just didn’t really care for. Whatever the house, whatever is burned, the kids gifts -- I didn’t care for any of that. The only thing I cared about was the dog,” said Stamps.

Understanding these families lost it all mere days before Christmas, the Groton City Police Union established a fundraiser to assist as they rebuild their lives.

“Everybody had their own problems, but to think to go out with fire and actually with Christmas right around the corner,” said neighbor Brandon Longo.

Search and rescue teams were unable to reach Ana in time due to the perilous conditions they faced while battling down the fire. Sweltering heat, thick smoke and wild flames made for unbearable conditions, posing extreme dangers at every step.

"“It was impossible to do a sweep of the premises to try to go in and see if there were any occupants to rescue,” added Groton City Police Chief Mike Spellman.

The body was so badly burned that investigators were forced to check dental records to verify the woman's identity. As a result, police aren't officially releasing the victim's name until an autopsy can be completed.

The Groton City Police Department notified next of kin earlier Thursday. Meanwhile, detectives are continuing their investigation into the circumstances of the fire.

Branford Manor Apartments - Building #37