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Firefighters from three states battled a five-alarm blaze at the Brooks House on Main Street early Monday morning. The fire started at about 8:45 p.m. on Sunday.

News

Fire rages in Brooks House, leaving 60 needing shelter; 10 businesses disrupted

Staple through electric wires causes blaze to smoulder between floors for 24-48 hours; owner vows to restore the massive 1871 former hotel

With additional reporting from Olga Peters, Fran Lynggaard Hansen, and Jeff Potter.

BRATTLEBORO—A five-alarm fire Sunday night heavily damaged the historic Brooks House complex on Main Street, displacing as many as 60 tenants and 1o businesses.

However, the teamwork of 23 area fire departments, combined with a working sprinkler system, prevented deaths or injuries.

Firefighters’ efforts saved the bulk of the 1871 building from the fire that started as a result of a staple penetrating an electrical wire in a space above a ceiling, according to Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi.

And while emergency personnel were initially concerned about the building’s structural integrity and evacuated nearby commercial buildings Monday morning, the damage to the historic landmark is not as extensive as initially feared. Owner Jonathan Chase said he is determined to rebuild the structure that has been in his family since the early 1970s.

“There was a lot of damage from the fire, but a lot of the building is still in good shape,” Town Manager Barbara Sondag reported Tuesday afternoon. “There’s a lot of rumors flying around town, but I can say this building is not coming down.”

Fighting a five-alarm fire

Light and smoke from the biggest downtown fire since the Wilder Block burned in December 2004 were visible from Interstate 91, and firefighters worked through the night to subdue the spectacular flames shooting into the sky.

At a joint news conference of town officials on Tuesday at the River Garden, Bucossi said his department received a box alarm call from the Brooks House at 8:46 p.m., followed by a telephone call from a tenant that there was smoke in the building.

The first fire crew that responded found no fire was showing, Bucossi said, until it reached a third-floor apartment where state fire investigators later determined that the fire began.

Bucossi said the wire sparked sometime between 24 and 48 hours before the fire was reported, and material burning in that void smoldered without anyone knowing until Sunday night.

Although heat would have emanated from the nascent fire to the floor of the apartment above, that unit was vacant, thus letting the fire develop without detection.

“It’s an old building, and when the fire got above the top-floor ceiling between the roof and the roof deck, it was very hard to get at,” Bucossi said.

A second alarm was quickly called, Bucossi said.

While the sprinkler system in the building appeared to have initially contained the fire, by 9:01 p.m., a third alarm was called, followed by a fourth alarm two minutes later.

Firefighters from neighboring towns in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts began to pour in, with as many as 150 on the scene at the peak of the fire.

Initially, Bucossi said, crews fought the fire inside the building as they worked to evacuate all the tenants.

“We found some residents who were still unaware that there was a fire, and they were escorted out by firefighters,” he said.

The fifth alarm, the highest level for a Brattleboro fire, was called at 10:27 p.m.

A frightening moment happened at about 10:35 p.m., when Bucossi said he was doing a routine status report and lost contact with a crew on the fourth floor.

At that moment, he ordered all crews out of the building and activated a rescue team from the Brattleboro Fire Department whose sole job is to rescue trapped firefighters.

But after several tense minutes, everyone was accounted for.

“It was very dangerous for the firefighters,” said Bucossi. “That’s why we decided to go to an exterior attack.”

At the peak of the firefighting effort, nine ladder trucks poured water on the blaze, with one additional ladder truck held in reserve, Buscossi said.

“I can’t say enough about the Brattleboro Fire and Mutual Aid crews,” said Bucossi. “The response was tremendous.”

Gary King, engineering technician for the town’s Department of Public Works, estimates fire fighters doused the Brooks House with 1.8 million gallons of water.

At times, the firefighters were drawing water from the Town’s Pleasant Valley and Black Mountain road tanks at 4,000 to 5,000 gallons a minute. Sometimes the draw went above 5,000 gallons a minute, said Rick Ethier, the DPW’s highway/utilities superintendent.

So much fuel was being used that Barrows and Fisher Oil Co. had to come help refuel the fire trucks, which had run low from continuously pumping water.

Bucossi said three Brattleboro firefighters were taken to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, treated for minor injuries, and were released later on Monday morning.

The fire was brought under control by 6:36 a.m. on Monday, but hot spots kept flaring up throughout Monday morning. Firefighters remained on the scene throughout Tuesday.

Brian Johnson, an inspector and investigator with the state Division of Fire Safety, said Tuesday that the sprinkler and alarm system made all the difference.

“Everything was up to code, everything worked, and everyone got out,” said Johnson. “Without a sprinkler system, the whole block would have been gone.”

Cleaning up the mess

Crews from Renaud Brothers of Vernon worked on Tuesday morning to stabilize the upper floors of the building.

Bucossi said the fourth and fifth floors of the historic five-story building were heavily damaged, particularly the side of the structure facing the Harmony Lot. The other floors suffered extensive smoke and water damage.

Main Street businesses in the immediate vicinity of the Brooks House were evacuated Monday, out of fear that it might fall in. Main Street between High and Elliot streets was closed to pedestrian and vehicular traffic all day Monday.

Limited access to pedestrians was restored on Tuesday, and Police Chief Eugene Wrinn said Tuesday that Main Street will be completely reopened to traffic as soon as it is deemed safe.

The remains of the fifth floor “penthouse ” — where four apartments were located — was partially demolished by Renaud Brothers on Tuesday.

The building was considered safe enough to allow merchants back into their businesses to do a quick status check on Tuesday, said Brattleboro Town Manager Barbara Sondag. Residents on the second and third floors, and some apartments on the fourth floor, will be allowed in, escorted by firefighters, to check on their apartments on Wednesday.

Some of the fourth-floor apartments, and all of the fifth floor, are too heavily damaged to let anyone in right away, Sondag said.

Rob Mather, of the Green Mountain Chapter of the American Red Cross, said a temporary shelter opened at the Gibson-Aiken Center within an hour of the fire on Sunday.

Recreation & Parks Director Carol Lolotte said the center has been open around the clock since then “and will remain open until everyone’s basic needs are met.”

Ken Murphy, a tenant in the building since last September, sought refuge in the emergency shelter.

“That building is uninhabitable now,” he said. “It’s going to be really difficult to find apartments for everyone.”

According the Brooks House manager, Jacilyn Emerson, 48 of the 59 residential units in the Brooks House were occupied as primary housing for 55 to 60 tenants at the time of the fire. 

No children had permanent residence in the building, she said. However, several children visited parents at the building regularly. 

According the American Red Cross, all 59 units were classified as “units destroyed,” which qualifies the residents for the highest level of the disaster relief agency’s assistance.

All Brooks House residents are strongly encouraged to register at the Gibson-Aiken Center with the Red Cross for assistance. Five Red Cross caseworkers will provide on site case management services throughout the week.

The registration process will help the Red Cross determine immediate emergency needs of the residents. The Red Cross is primarily able to assist with emergency shelter, food, clothing, medical and disaster mental health services. Local landlords have been encouraged to post rental vacancies at the Gibson-Aiken Center and other agencies will be coordinating with case managers at the building.

The effort to find housing for the displaced residents is ongoing. A meeting on Wednesday from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Gibson-Aiken Center will help those displaced by the fire receive assistance from various sources.

Historic building

The Brooks House, owned by Jonathan Chase, is the biggest commercial building in Brattleboro. It was built in 1871 as one of the largest hotels in New England.

It narrowly escaped demolition in the late 1960s and was renovated by Chase’s father, Norman Chase, into apartments and retail space. In an interview with The Commons last fall, Jonathan Chase said was planning to turn some of the vacant space in the building into studio and gallery space for artists.

According to the town’s Grand List, the block, which sits on almost 1 acre of land, was assessed at $2,355,500.

Commercial tenants include The Book Cellar, Dragonfly Dry Goods, the Wasteland Gift Shop, Adagio Trattoria, Jumi Shop, Brilliance, and the Mole’s Eye Cafe.

The nonprofit Brattleboro Community Radio, WVEW, which transmitted from the Brooks House roof, is off the air. The station operated from a studio on the second floor and has resumed broadcasting online at www.wvew.org while it assesses the damage.

Where help is available

An outpouring of community support has appeared on iBrattleboro, with users of the online citizen news site offering shelter and support for those displaced.

The Green Mountain Chapter of the American Red Cross and the United Way of Windham County are both accepting donations to assist with relief efforts. 

At this time, both organizations say financial donations are most helpful to the current efforts. 

Donations can be designated for immediate Red Cross relief efforts (such as emergency shelter or clothing) or long-term needs to be coordinated locally (such as security deposits, furniture, etc.).  Both agencies will accept donations for the immediate Red Cross efforts, and the United Way of Windham County will be the repository for contributions designated for long-term needs.

Mail checks to the American Red Cross Green Mountain Chapter, 81 High St., Brattleboro, VT 05301.  Please specify “Brooks House disaster” in the memo of your check.  Online donations can be made at vermontredcross.org.

Or, mail checks to United Way of Windham County, 28 Vernon St., Suite 312, Brattleboro, VT 05301.  Please specify “Brooks House disaster” for immediate Red Cross relief efforts or “Brooks House long-term” for the long-term fund in the memo of your check. On-line donations can be made at unitedwaywindham.org.

Those interested in volunteering for the Brooks House disaster relief effort should email contact information to info@unitedwaywindham.org.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #97 (Wednesday, April 20, 2011).

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