Vermont, N.H. Crews Battle Five-Alarm Blaze

April 18--BRATTLEBORO -- A five-alarm fire ravaged a historic 59-unit apartment building on Main Street that also housed several businesses.

The blaze, which began Sunday at about 9 p.m. at Brooks House, wasn't declared under control until 6:36 this morning, according to Brattleboro Fire Chief D. Michael Bucossi.

"It's the biggest fire I've seen in my 33-year career," Bucossi said.

No residents were injured, but three firefighters were taken to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital for precautionary treatment this morning and were later released, Bucossi said.

At the fire's peak, 150 firefighters from 20 to 25 departments in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts helped in the attack. Thirty-five remained this morning.

At 8:30 today, firefighters on ladders extending up the building were still pouring water onto the roof to catch hot spots. The building is four stories tall in one section, and five in another.

The top floors are blackened and charred.

All of Main Street was closed to car and foot traffic between Elliot and High streets, with yellow caution tape extending around the area. Portions of High and Elliot street were also closed this morning, as was the Harmony parking lot.

Businesses in the area will be closed for the day, Bucossi said.

The Brattleboro Fire Department first heard of the fire through a report of smoke from a third-floor tenant, and initially responded with two pumper trucks and a ladder truck from the department.

Upon arriving, fire officials quickly called a second alarm, and rushed all Brattleboro fire equipment to the scene.

The fire began on the side of the building facing Main Street, starting on the fourth floor and spreading to the fifth, and caused extensive damage to the third and fourth floors, Bucossi said. There is water damage to the entire building, he said.

Bucossi said sprinklers near the source kept much of it contained at first, but it spread to the rest of the building when it reached an attic crawl space.

"It was a very constant battle," Bucossi said. "It was a difficult fire because the building is so chopped up."

The building also includes the Mole's Eye Cafe, the Book Cellar and Shaff Opticians, among other businesses.

Down the street at the Gibson-Aiken Center, the Vermont and New Hampshire Valley Region American Red Cross set up an emergency shelter for residents. Inside, a few people napped on couches in a sitting area while others watched the television news.

About a dozen green cots had been set up, and volunteers made breakfast and served coffee to the people inside.

Bruce Pollock, deputy chief response officer for the Red Cross chapter, set up a meeting with residents this morning to discuss their continuing needs.

Residents have not yet been allowed to return to their homes.

Outside the shelter, third-floor tenant Alfred A. Hughes Jr. spoke with neighbors about their experiences with the fire.

As he exited the building, Hughes saw smoke on his floor, but was unable to tell where it was coming from, he said.

"I went out back to the Harmony lot; I saw flames shooting out the back side of the fourth floor," Hughes said.

He and neighbors he spoke with escaped only with the clothes on their backs.

"Most of the time when you hear the fire alarm go off you just need to get out, so I didn't grab anything," Hughes said.

Bucossi expects some firefighters will be busy at the scene all day. The department will also bring in a crane to take out some of the unstable areas of the building.

A structural engineer will visit the site to determine what must be done to the building.

For Hughes and his neighbors, everything now is uncertain.

"Right now it's chaos. We don't know what's going to happen."

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1432, or deisenstadter@keenesentinel.com

Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or cfarrar@keenesentinel.com

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