Lincoln Hotel: one year, two fires

By Tom Dalton

Staff writer

SALEM -- It was nearly 3 a.m. on a June morning one year ago. An angry tenant who had been drinking placed a bag of clothing in an elevator at the Lincoln Hotel, lit it on fire and closed the door. Most of the 60 people who live in the four-story building on Lafayette Street were asleep.

It may be luck that nobody died that night. The fire was contained to the elevator, but there was heavy smoke throughout the building. Police and firefighters carried disabled residents down the stairs and struggled with others to get them to leave.

"We were actually fighting with several people," said Paul Gallant, a fire investigator.

Last month, there was a similar, but less serious incident in the building. Someone lit a bag of trash on fire in front of a fourth-floor apartment. Police and fire responded and took a suspect into custody.

The Lincoln Hotel, which has had two serious incidents in less than a year, is not a rooming house, where tenants share bathrooms and kitchen areas. It is a single-room occupancy building where individuals sign one-year leases and live in small efficiency apartments. Tenants receive federal subsidies to help pay the rent.

Because it is not a rooming house, it is not regulated by the city's Licensing Board and is not inspected once a year unlike rooming houses, which are inspected by a team of fire, building and health inspectors headed by Licensing Board Chairman Harold Blake, a retired police captain.

A building inspector was at the Lincoln Hotel two years ago but is required to inspect it only every five years, according to the Building Department. The Fire Department tries to get there every year, but sometimes the inspections stretch out to 18 months or more, according to Capt. William Hudson of the fire inspection division. Its last inspection was June 13, 2003 -- three days after the elevator fire.

Despite the less frequent inspection schedule, city inspectors and the building's owner, Caritas Communities of Braintree, say the building is safe. Sprinklers and fire alarms are checked regularly by the city and service companies, a manager is on the premises during the daytime, and police details are inside the building as many as four nights a week, sometimes right through the night. The police are hired by the building owner for security reasons.

"You've got as many systems as you can put in there to prevent this kind of occurrence from becoming a real disaster," said Mark Winkeller, executive director of Caritas, a nonprofit organization that manages lodging houses throughout Greater Boston and purchased the Lincoln Hotel earlier this year. Caritas was founded, Winkeller said, to create affordable housing for working people.

"But, at the end of the day," Winkeller said, "whether it's this building or a ... luxury (building), if somebody is stupid enough to set a fire on purpose, there's nothing you can do with that."

Although not on official inspections, firefighters are in there all the time, Chief David Cody said. One fire official estimated that false alarms or other matters take them there a dozen or more times a year. Each time, they reset the alarm and walk through the building.

"We're constantly in there," Cody said. "So if there was some type of major violation, that would be sent right down to Fire Prevention and we'd take care of it."

The case file on the fire last month at the Lincoln Hotel is open and still under investigation, Gallant said. The file on the June 2003 arson is closed. The tenant who lit the blaze recently died.