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Families in need

17 people are homeless after fire destroys Elliot Street apartment house

With additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

BRATTLEBORO—The cause of an Oct. 16 fire on Elliot Street that left 17 people homeless remains under investigation.

According to Fire Chief Michael Bucossi, investigations into the three-alarm blaze at 214 Elliot St. have successfully determined that the fire started on the third floor.

Interviews by Brattleboro Fire Department fire investigators and Brattleboro Police into the fire’s root cause are ongoing, said Bucossi.

“At this time we have no reason to think the fire is suspicious [arson],” said Bucossi.

Gallons of water cascaded down the front of 214 Elliot St. last week as firefighters battled the blaze, which heavily damaged the upper two floors of the three-story building. The first floor sustained severe water damage.

According to the Vermont and the New Hampshire Upper Valley American Red Cross and Bucossi, all residents and their pets escaped the fire unharmed.

Three firefighters were taken to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital for minor injuries.

Bucossi said the three were sent home the same night and are doing well.

Throughout the night, personnel from 11 fire departments arrived on scene. The fire chief issued a “special call” for reinforcements, which brought two more engine companies to the scene.

Six Red Cross disaster services workers arranged for hotel rooms for the 17 residents.

According to Doug Bishop, director of communications for the Red Cross in Burlington, the organization spent about $5,000 that first night housing displaced residents in a hotel and providing food and hydration to emergency responders.

Bishop said that the Red Cross handled the initial emergency by providing short-term housing, food, clothing, and some funding. Local organizations will support the displaced residents with transitional and long-term housing.

He added that on Oct. 17, the Red Cross called a meeting with local organizations and services, like the United Way, Vermont Economic Services, and Brattleboro Housing Authority, to pinpoint which organization could “take a little piece” of the mission to rehouse the 17 residents.

The Red Cross reports that six of the seven apartments were occupied. According to the town grand list, the building is owned by Robert Remy-Powers, operating as Erwin Apartments Inc.

‘A tremendous amount of fire’

The fire was reported at 4:46 p.m. and took hold of the building before firefighters arrived from the Brattleboro Fire Department (BFD) Central Station a few blocks away.

These firefighters arrived at the scene and “were met with a tremendous amount of fire,” said Bucossi.

Brattleboro Police Department temporarily closed Elliot and Frost Streets.

Hours later at 10:30 pm, fire trucks still lined Elliot Street as firefighters climbed Keene, N.H.’s ladder truck to the roof.

Firefighters and members of the Public Works Department managed fire and municipal water systems to the rhythm of flashing emergency lights and the rumble of diesel engines.

People from neighboring houses watched the scene from their porches and front yards.

BFD personnel had the blaze under control at 11:32 p.m. but remained on fire watch until the morning hours, dousing small “pockets” of fire as the night plodded on.

“It was a real struggle in that building,” said a tired Bucossi, who had been away from his home for more than 30 hours when he spoke to The Commons the following afternoon.

The building originally had a flat roof, said Bucossi. Several years ago, a peaked roof was added over the first roof and the new roof covered with metal.

This construction created a “void area” for the fire to collect, Bucossi said. The metal roof held the fire in, forcing it to burn down into the building rather than up through the roof.

Eventually, the new roof collapsed onto the original flat roof, creating a “pile of burning debris that we couldn’t get to,” Bucossi said.

Bucossi called in Valley Crane Services from Vernon to remove the roof around midnight.

Although calling in a crane is not a normal procedure, the fire chief wanted to cover all his bases: If the large building collapsed under the roof’s weight, it could place the neighboring homes in more danger, he said.

Once the roof had been removed, the fire departments “wet everything down,” pumping more water through the building’s top, he said.

A house to the east sustained water damage from a fire hose spraying across the burning building, which resulted in additional roof damage and a broken window.

Stephen Barrett, director of Brattleboro Public Works, and seven members of his crew, managed the municipal water system to ensure that the BFD had ample water.

Public Works also responded to flooding on Flat Street from the gallons of water flowing downhill from the burning building.

At “peak flow,” said Barrett, the fire department pumped more than 4,000 gallons a minute onto the structure. The department used about 700,000 gallons of water.

“We [the town] have a really good water system and we have a lot of [water] storage,” he said. But when a fire is that big, it helps to have a municipal water system, he said.

That many thousands of gallons of water can also lead to flooding issues in a densely populated area like Elliot and Frost streets.

Water flowed down the steep embankment behind the burning building and into the basements of three homes on Frost Street, said Barrett.

Public Works crew installed temporary pumps in the three homes. Once that flooding was under control, the crew installed a pump in a “pond” created by pooling water in the area behind the three buildings, preventing more water from entering any basements.

Green Mountain Power shut off power to Frost Street to prevent any electrical accidents, said Barrett. As of the following afternoon, all but one house had power restored.

Bucossi and Barrett both praised the mutual aid response and assistance the town received from neighboring fire departments in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

The mutual aid system “is worth its weight in gold,” said Bucossi.

He credited working fire detectors and alarms in the building to warning the residents in time to get out of the building safely.

Donations and relief efforts

On Wednesday night, Love It Twice, a used-clothing store at 74 Black Mountain Rd., publicized a clothing drive for displaced residents and their families. As of Thursday, owner Leigh-Ann Cwikowski posted that two rooms have been filled with donations.

“I am so touched by the response from the community for the victims of the fire,” she wrote.

Whippersnappers, a thrift/consignment store at 642 Putney Rd., announced that it had raised $300 in cash and has offered to match every dollar in store credit that customers donate.

Brattleboro resident Bethany Thies has organized efforts to offer meals to the fire victims. [See related story this issue.]

The Root Social Justice Center at 28 Williams St., Suite 1, is accepting donations.

Shela Linton writes that she knows that members of one displaced family “are in need of money, diapers, clothes, shoes, food and toiletries and will need everything upon finding a place to live.”

Anything other than furniture donations can be left at the center. Donors may call Linton at 802-254-3400 or 802-275-2363.

A group of area residents has created a Facebook group, “Elliot Street Fire Fund,” to discuss continuing assistance for the victims through creation of a fund. Brattleboro Savings & Loan is in the process of setting up an account.

The group is also discussing needs of those affected, ranging from bedding to Halloween costumes for the children.

To make a donation to the Red Cross, visit www.redcross.org, call 802-660-9130, ext. 111, text REDCROSS to 90999, or mail your contribution to American Red Cross, 29 Mansfield Ave., Burlington, VT 05401.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #226 (Wednesday, October 23, 2013). This story appeared on page A1.

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