Massachusetts and New Hampshire Units Battle 7-Alarm Fire in Mixed-Use Structure

Seventeen fire departments from Massachusetts and New Hampshire battled a seven-alarm fire on May 26, 2004, that destroyed a 104-year-old building in downtown Amesbury, MA. Fire officers credited repeated training on the incident command system for their success in managing the large incident and extensive mutual aid resources needed to control the late-night fire and safely evacuate the building’s occupants.

Photo by Steve Perkins
Thick, black smoke issues from the third floor of the mixed-use building, which had businesses and the first floor and apartments above.


Chief: William F. Shute
Type of department: Combination (40 members)
Apparatus: Two engines, one aerial, one technical rescue unit, one collapse trailer, one forestry unit, one marine unit, two ALS units, one reserve engine
Population: 17,000
Area: 14 square miles

The three-story wood-frame building of balloon-type construction was 50 feet deep and 150 feet wide. The structure had a flat tar and gravel roof and was equipped with a Type 1 Fire Alarm System with a Master Box. Three businesses occupied the first floor and eight apartments were located on the second and third floors.

The Amesbury Fire Department was dispatched to a structure fire at 69-73 Main St. at 10:39 P.M. Engines 1 and 3 and Ladder 1, a 110-foot aerial, responded with six firefighters under the command of Lieutenant James Kukene. Engines 1 and 3 were positioned at the rear of the building (side C). Engine 3 laid a 300-foot four-inch supply line from a hydrant at 45 Friend St. to supply Engine 1. Ladder 1 was positioned on Main Street at the A-B corner of the structure. The building was situated in the center of a block, thus there was no access to sides B and D.

Firefighters from Engine 1 advanced a 200-foot 1¾-inch attack line into the rear entrance of the building to protect occupant removal. First-due firefighters found three to four occupants struggling to leave the building on floors two and three. Those occupants had to be assisted out with conditions rapidly deteriorating due to heavy smoke and heat. Firefighters at this time reported they could hear fire running the walls.

At 10:42, Kukene requested the “working fire” alarm be transmitted. Upon the arrival of Chief William F. Shute and Deputy Chief Jon Brickett, Shute assumed command and quickly realized the severity of the incident. A command post was established in front of exposure B. Shute ordered the second alarm at 10:48, initiating the callback of all off-duty personnel. Amesbury Engine 2 responded to the scene with callback personnel and was positioned on Main Street. This pumper was supplied by a 200-foot four-inch supply line from a hydrant at Main and Aubin streets. Engine 2 supplied Ladder 1 with a 100-foot four-inch supply line.

Firefighters from Engine 2 advanced a 200-foot 1¾-inch attack line into the Greenery Design, a florist shop on the first floor of the building. This crew encountered heavy fire in the rear of the flower shop and attempted to knock down the fire and contain it. Crews at the rear stretched an additional 200-foot 1¾-inch attack line to the second floor for protection and extinguishment operations. These crews operated three lines inside the structure for 30 minutes. Also on the second alarm, Newburyport Engine 4, Merrimac Engine 31 and Merrimac Tower Ladder 1 filled in at the Amesbury Fire Station.

Shute requested a third alarm at 10:55. Newburyport Engine 4, Merrimac Engine 34 and Tower Ladder 1, a 100-foot tower, responded to the scene from standby at the Amesbury Fire Station. Newburyport Engine 4 responded to the A side of the building and hooked on the hydrant in front of the fire building on Main Street. Merrimac Engine 34 and Merrimac Tower Ladder 1 went to the rear side C to assist Amesbury Engine 1. Merrimac Tower Ladder 1 was set up at the C-D corner of the building. The crew from Merrimac Engine 34 assisted Amesbury firefighters with fire attack operations at the rear.

A fourth alarm was requested at 10:58. Salisbury Engine 204, Hampton, NH, Engine 2 and Exeter, NH, Ladder 1, a 110-foot rear-mount aerial ladder, responded. Shute also requested an additional ladder on the fourth alarm, Byfield Ladder 1, a 100-foot aerial ladder. Salisbury Engine 204 reverse-laid a four-inch supply line from Amesbury Engine 1 to a hydrant at 3 Friend St. and pumped from the hydrant. This supply line fed the Merrimac Tower and Amesbury Engine 1. Engine 1 was supplying three 1¾-inch attack lines, one 2½-inch attack line, one two-inch attack line and three master streams. Hampton Engine 2 laid a four-inch supply line from a hydrant at Main and Mill streets to feed Exeter Ladder 1, which was set up on Main Street at the A-D corner of the fire building.

Shute requested a fifth alarm at 11:05. Newton, NH, Engine 1 and Seabrook, NH, Engine 43 responded. Byfield Ladder 1 was positioned at the A-B corner of the fire building and set up a ladder pipe operation. Newton Engine 1 laid a 300-foot four-inch supply line to itself from a hydrant at 125 Main St. and fed Byfield Ladder 1. Seabrook Engine 43 went to side C to assist with the fire attack.

Photo by Steve Perkins
Within minutes of arrival, a callback was sounded for all off-duty Amesbury firefighters.

Newburyport Chief Steve Cutter reported to Shute that his firefighters could not contain the fire in the first-floor side A and could see the fire spreading rapidly up to the second floor. At the same time, Brickett reported heavy fire showing out the second floor on side C. At 11:15, Shute gave the order to evacuate the fire building and go to a defensive mode.

Shute requested a sixth alarm at 11:15. Kensington, NH, Engine 1, East Kingston Engine 2 and North Hampton, NH, Ladder 1, a 110-foot rear-mount ladder, went to staging and its crews reported to the command post for assignment. At this time, command was faced with rotating crews as the first-to-arrive firefighters were in need of rehab. The additional resources were also a precaution if the fire extended to exposures B and/or D.

As the fire took complete control of the building, command decided to supplement the water supply. The command post was moved to the Hampton, NH, deputy chief’s vehicle 50 yards from the fire building. Shute ordered the seventh alarm at 11:25. Portable appliances and additional large handlines were set up to control the fire. Portsmouth, NH, Engine 3, Hampton Falls, NH, Engine 3 and Rowley Ladder 1, a 100-foot rear mount ladder, responded. These units went to staging and hand-carried portable deluge guns and hoselines to the fire and set up defensive hose streams.

The crew from Portsmouth Engine 3 was assigned as the rapid intervention team and oversaw safety along with Chief Chris Leclare of the Portsmouth Fire Department. Shute decided to completely surround the original fire building and work aggressively to knock down all the heavy fire due to the possible collapse if the conditions were allowed to continue. Lawrence Engine 38 and Methuen Engine 5 were requested to stand by at the Amesbury station.

The fire was declared under control at 12:30 A.M. on May 27. All mutual aid departments were released from the scene by 4 A.M. The last Amesbury units left the scene at 5 P.M. on May 28, some 43 hours after the initial dispatch.

Eighty firefighters operated 14 engines, four aerial apparatus, five deck guns and multiple handlines to extinguish the fire. There were no reported injuries to the eight residents of the apartments. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries when a hydrant supply line burst.

A two-day investigation conducted by the Amesbury Fire Investigation Unit, the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal’s Office and agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) ruled the cause of the fire to be undetermined due to the heavy fire load in the florist shop. The best theory was a possible chemical reaction from multiple items that were removed and the area of origin was disturbed earlier in the day. Damage was estimated at $1.1 million.

Problems faced by firefighters included: the age and type of construction of the building; the lack of automatic sprinklers; limited access to the building; and complacency of the occupants of the apartments to the fire alarms. This resulted in the necessity of firefighters evacuating the occupants, which delayed fire attack operations due to limited manpower on the first alarm.

The successful outcome of the incident was credited to the implementation of the incident command system, which the chief officers said worked well due to continued training by the departments involved. In addition, firefighters were able to contain the fire to the building of origin. Most importantly, there were no serious injuries to civilians or firefighters.

Jay K. Bradish/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.