BRATTLEBORO — A local legend and iconic landmark are gone following a Dec. 2 fire at 90 Elliot St. that destroyed McNeill's Brewery and took the life of its owner, C. Reagin “Ray” McNeill.
The shock in the community, where the local institution was home away from home to many for more than three decades has been palpable as folks grappled to understand the tragedy.
At the scene, confusion reigned among onlookers as they watched the fire with growing concern that firefighters did not enter to ensure that its 62-year-old owner was not inside the burning building, where he lived in an apartment above the bar.
Brattleboro Fire Chief Leonard Howard confirmed that McNeill had been told in June that the building was unsafe and was warned that should a fire break out, he would not put others' lives at risk and firefighters would not enter the building.
McNeill's daughter, Eve Nyrhinen, noted that the building had not passed its regular inspection, a fact underscored in a press release from the Brattleboro Fire Department on Dec. 5 that included a copy of a June 2021 report from Stevens & Associates and McNeill's acknowledgement of that report.
“Basically, the 200-year-old wooden building was not designed for literally tons of brew tanks and equipment,” Nyrhinen said.
McNeill was prohibited from reopening the pub, which had closed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, until the structural issues were addressed.
Although he was working with contractor Bill Congleton to try to repair and restore the building, “he had a limited budget, and the work was going much more slowly than he had hoped,” Nyrhinen said.
“He was planning on rebuilding with an outdoor patio and a barbecue,” she said. “A new, better McNeill's.”
But until that could happen, “He was told he needed to move out for his own safety, that if there were a fire, the crew wouldn't be able to go in to rescue him due to the instability of the building,” she continued.
“There hasn't been a fire in his 30-ish years there and he had an extensive sprinkler system, and he himself wasn't worried about the structural stability, so he stayed,” Nyrhinen said.
She told The Commons that her dad was continuing to brew in the meantime.
“He was an avid reader of microbiology papers and said he was improving his brews by leaps and bounds during this time,” she said.
Nyrhinen said that since he couldn't open the bar this winter and didn't need to be there for construction, McNeill had decided to go to Mexico.
“He spoke fluent Spanish and loved Mexico and, if he turned off the heat and water at McNeill's, he would save as much money as he would pay to be in Mexico,” she said.
She added that he was going to drive so he could take his bicycle and stop in Reno, where she lives, to visit with her and his grandchildren.
“He had talked for years about retiring in Mexico, where he could afford to live and could be closer to me and his grandkids. Spending a winter there seemed like a great way to try it out,” his daughter said.
McNeill was supposed to leave Nov. 29.
“He was supposed to leave on Tuesday and he drained the pipes and had the water shut off, but he had 'a few more errands' he needed to do before heading out, and there were snowstorms coming to Reno that I didn't want him to hit, so he stayed a few extra days,” Nyrhinen said.
A three-alarm fire
Around 6 p.m. Bill Congleton, the contractor who had started to renovate the building, and another friend, Karl Isselhardt, met McNeill to taste a new brew.
The party broke up around 6:30, and McNeill said he was going home to bed.
On Friday, Dec. 2 at 7:44 p.m., both stations were dispatched to a first alarm for a reported apartment fire at the structure, which had been built in 1892, according to the Brattleboro Historical Society. The building had served as a firehouse until 1933.
Engine 2 arrived from Central Fire Station, across the street from McNeill's, at 7:45 p.m. Fire Department Capt. Joe Newton reported seeing flames and requested a second alarm be dispatched at 7:52 p.m.
Fire Chief Howard quickly requested a third alarm as Westminster and Wilmington fire crews joined those from Northfield and Turners Falls, Massachusetts and Swanzey, New Hampshire to provide mutual aid at Brattleboro stations.
Also assisting on the scene were crews from Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney, as well as Chesterfield, Hinsdale, and Keene, New Hampshire and Greenfield, Massachusetts.
Brattleboro Police and Public Works Department personnel, along with a crew from Green Mountain Power, were also at the scene.
Due to the compromised structural integrity of the building, crews performed exterior operations only. The fire was deemed under control at 8:59 p.m. It was investigated by the Brattleboro Fire Department, the Brattleboro Police Department, and the Vermont State Police's Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit.
The investigation determined the origin of the fire was on the second floor in the southeast corner. The official cause remains “undetermined,” although officials say it does not appear to be the result of a criminal act.
With the damage from the fire, the building's structural stability was “further hindered,” and the structure was determined to be a public safety hazard. Howard ordered it to be razed “for the safety of the community.”
Renaud Construction of Vernon did so the next day, leaving more residents and friends of McNeill's up in arms.
Contrary to what some were saying and posting on social media, Nyrhinen said she was apprised that the structure had to come down.
“It was one of the firefighters who asked if they could take down the McNeill's Brewery sign to save for the family,” she said.
The view from the street
According to one eyewitness, firefighters were initially resolute in their belief that McNeill was in Mexico and they were extinguishing a blaze in a vacant building.
Monica MacNeille and her husband, Rich Holschuh, received a text message from their son-in-law at 7:47 p.m. saying that McNeill's was on fire. At 7:53 p.m. he texted back to say the fire department was on scene but there was no sign of McNeill.
She said the couple arrived at the scene at about 8:35 p.m.
There, they spotted a group of friends standing next to a police officer at the edge of the yellow tape. They asked the friends if anyone had seen McNeill and were told no.
Monica MacNeille said “everybody was very upset” and she asked why firefighters weren't entering the building to look for McNeill. She heard someone say that he was in Mexico.
But their friend Karl Isselhardt reported that he had just seen McNeill two hours before when he and Bill Congleton met up to taste the beer.
MacNeille said that after standing and watching without seeing anyone enter the building, she approached a firefighter and told her McNeill was in the building.
The firefighter, said MacNeille, was “surprised” and asked how she knew that and MacNeille explained the interaction with Isselhardt.
The firefighter said she'd pass the information to the Chief. MacNeille returned to her spot and watched the fire, saying she “assumed” the flames were keeping firefighters from entering although they were “working the front window.”
MacNeille told The Commons that multiple firefighters from multiple departments insisted that McNeill was in Mexico.
At some point, she saw at least two firefighters with tanks go up the front ladder to the front window upstairs, look inside with flashlights, and return.
“Nothing happened,” she said. “We comforted each other and waited.”
Perhaps an hour after she had spoken to the second group MacNeille said she saw Bob Stevens of Stevens & Associates arrive on the scene and he and the Chief were “chatting and laughing,” which “deeply upset” her. Soon after the ladder trucks and Stevens left and gear was being gathered.
She then approached Howard and “told him nobody was going to go home until they brought Ray out,” asking if they had “made a visual of the body.”
“He told me he was sorry; Ray had passed away. He gave me a hug and expressed his condolences. He said they could not move his body until the investigators came in the morning.”
“I was horrified that they would leave him there all night,” MacNeille said. “The chief said they'd post an officer there to guard his body and the building overnight.”
MacNeille said she and Holschuh left about 10:30 p.m and went home.
A daughter's understanding
As rumors took on a life of their own, Nyrhinen, a pediatric anesthesiologist, stepped up on Dec. 6 and posted on the new “Friends of McNeill's” Facebook public group and on iBrattleboro, trying to address a tragedy as complicated as the man himself. [The post also appears as an Open Letter in this week's Voices, C1.]
“I was told the fire likely started from an old multi-port electrical outlet in his apartment above the bar,” Nyrhinen wrote.
“He was likely asleep when it started. The sprinkler system was off and he had no water. Between the smoke and carbon monoxide, he only made it to the top of his stairs before he collapsed,” Nyrhinen continued.
“The firemen were unable to safely go in, even after they sighted his body through a hole they created in the roof. His body was retrieved the next morning and the building was emergently torn down due to concerns that it was unstable.”
“Way back in June, when the report came from Stevens Associates saying the building was unstable, I made it clear to Ray and my staff that in the event of a fire, we wouldn't enter it because it was unstable,” Howard said on Dec. 5.
“It's been very hard,” Howard added. “The fire was knocked down very quickly, but that building was deemed 'do not enter' due to structural conditions, and that's what was done.”
“It's a tough decision that I had to make, but it's the decision I made back when I was told the building was unsafe,” the chief said.
Howard said firefighters had seen McNeill's body “on the second floor in the middle of the room closest to Elliot Street” and knew he was deceased because “given the fire and smoke conditions, nobody could sustain life in that environment.”
McNeill's body remained in the building overnight, causing further consternation and pain to friends and community members.
“The main reason was that the state police investigator wasn't able to come until Saturday morning,” said Howard. “So we had a cop sit on the scene all night long to make sure it was secure.”
Howard said the chief medical examiner's report stating the official cause of death will not be available for four to six weeks.
Noting the structural report and that her father had been apprised by the fire department that a crew would not be put in jeopardy should a blaze occur, Nyrhinen said he chose to stay.
“Anyone who loved him knew that you couldn't tell that man what to do,” she wrote, adding “it never occurred to anyone that it was unsafe for him to stay in his apartment after the sprinkler system had been drained.”
Nyrhinen continued to say the fire likely started from an electric power strip in back of her father's TV, next to “stacks of magazines.”
“He was probably asleep when it happened,” she said. “My understanding is that smoke and carbon monoxide poisoning makes a person giddy, happy, and unafraid in their last few moments, and I'd like to think that his death was like this, as peaceful as a death by fire could be. His body was not burned, and he was not trapped.”
When speaking to The Commons over the weekend, Nyrhinen said she had called firefighters the day after the fire and thanked them - something she did again Monday, said Howard.
“There are a lot of difficult decisions to be made as a firefighter with limited time, limited information, and high stakes,” Nyrhinen wrote. “I know as a doctor, after a patient has died in my hands I torture myself for months over the what-ifs. The truth is we do our best. I truly believe that they did.”
“And I hope that none of the firefighters who were there last night is torturing themselves over the what-ifs. Tragedies happen. A 'failure to save' is a hard thing to live with. I'm sorry that anyone is questioning their choices. I promise you no one in that fire department wanted my father to die.”
In her post on Dec. 6, Nyrhinen said that, as a college EMT, “the one cardinal, inviolable rule was that you do not proceed onto a scene until it is cleared for safety.”
“You cannot risk losing a second life,” she wrote. “My heart goes out to the firefighter who had to climb back down that ladder and tell the crowd they'd done everything they could.”
“The truth is, we do our very best with the information we have at the time,” Nyrhinen wrote. “They didn't know he was up there - none of us knew for sure - and there was some confusion at the scene about whether he was in Mexico already.”
“Had they known, they still would have had to proceed in the same manner,” she said.
She encouraged the public to “please extend your love and support to the Brattleboro Fire Department. They followed protocol. They made decisions that might have prevented losing a second young hero's life.”
In her post, Nyrhinen also addressed the immediate razing of the building.
“The building was torn down immediately because it was a risk to the community,” she wrote.
She also addressed social media chatter that called into question the fragility of the building because Renaud's excavation equipment was supported by the rubble.
“What if another fire had broken out? What if people had ventured in? Yes, they drove an excavator onto the main floor to demolish it, demonstrating that the foundation was sound enough for that, but their real concerns were the top floor and roof, damaged by fire.”
One bystander posted on Facebook that firefighters were making mementos available “free for the taking.”
“And no, the fire department did not put things from the bar out on the sidewalk for anyone to take,” Nyrhinen said. “They entrusted what could be saved to a few individuals, with my blessing, and those things are being stored until my sibling and I can go through them.”
McNeill's daughter addressed every fallacious rumor head-on.
“Our community is in mourning,” she wrote. “I've heard rumors that my Dad committed suicide, setting the fire because he knew the fire department wouldn't go up there. I've heard outrage that the fire department didn't 'save him.' I've heard conspiracy theories about how they tore down the building to cover up their mistakes.
“These sensational fantasies and lies are not helpful to a small town dealing with a large tragedy. Please have some grace for everyone involved and the difficult decisions they had to make. . .please believe that everyone did their best, and extend your support to everyone involved. I know my Dad would.”
'Memorial party' set for Dec. 17
A “memorial party” has been planned for Saturday, Dec. 17 at the Stone Church at 210 Main St. from 1 to 3 p.m., with doors opening at noon.
One of McNeill's former brewers will brew McNeill's beer for the memorial, the man who made the iconic tie-dyed McNeill's T-shirts has offered to print shirts, and The Brattleboro Pub Singers have asked to sing “McNeill's Ale,” the adaptation of a traditional pub song.
The memorial party will include an open mic for people to make toasts, share stories, or play songs.
“It's unconventional, but so was he,” Nyrhinen said.
“Everyone is invited and encouraged to come and will be treated like family, just like they would've been at his pub,” she noted, encouraging people to “bust out your old, old tie-dyed Dead Horse shirts and come ready to toast, sing, play music, share stories, laugh together, and cry together.”
“Let's make this epic,” she said.