N.H. Firefighters Escape After Collapse at 4-Alarmer

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- A stubborn, smoky fire severely damaged an elegant Victorian home and attached stable on Myrtle Street Monday and temporarily trapped six firefighters during a ceiling collapse.

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All the firefighters escaped unharmed and returned to battle the blaze for at least another three hours.

At least one occupant was home when the four-alarm fire broke out at 133 Myrtle St. and called it in about 3:30 p.m., Fire Chief James Burkush said.

Four of the seven apartments were occupied, Burkush said. No one was hurt but one cat reportedly is missing, he said. Fire officials said all residents who were at home when the fire broke out were safely evacuated from the more than 100-year-old building. The American Red Cross is assisting the four people displaced by the fire.

More than 100 firefighters battled the stubborn blaze until it was brought under control at 6:15 p.m. Burkush said he expected crews would remain on scene until 11:30 p.m.

The fire started in the three-story former stable attached to the south side of the house, Burkush said. The cause is undetermined and under investigation, he said.

Burkush said one resident who was at home reported smelling smoke for a while, but didn't report it until he saw flames coming from the stable, now used as a garage.

"The fire gained considerable headway (on us)," Burkush explained. Fire officials estimated the fire had been burning about one hour before they were notified.

A crew of six firefighters from Engines 5 and 11 made an initial interior attack on the building when the third-floor ceiling collapsed on them, Burkush said. A flashover and "smoke explosion" in the attic pushed the third-floor ceiling down on the men, he said.

Visibility was reduced to zero and heat conditions increased significantly, fire officials said. Several firefighters were pinned down by the weight of the ceiling and were freed from the rubble by their partners.

"Their training paid off. They were able to regroup and take account of everybody," the chief said. The six firefighters escaped safely on their own, regrouped outside and returned to fight the blaze.

Firefighters struck four alarms, which brought in every piece of the city's fire fighting equipment and all on-duty firefighters and all available off-duty personnel, Burkush said. In addition, Nashua brought a ladder truck to the scene.

Houses on either side of 133 Myrtle St. were evacuated.

Next door neighbor Tori Harrington quietly prayed the fire would not extend to her house, located about eight feet away at 137 Myrtle St. Firefighters trained a steady stream of water against her home to keep it from igniting.

"Please God, may it not happen," Harrington, 30, said as she worried about the cats she left behind in her haste to get out once she heard the sirens. A police officer later approached her to say her cats were OK.

Located between Union and Pine streets, the fire at one point drew about 200 spectators along Orange Street. When the wind changed, the thick, churning brown smoke enveloped them, forcing many to back up or take cover behind buildings. A few held bandanas against their mouths and noses.

Burkush said firefighters were hampered by the wind, and the unique features of the ornate 133 Myrtle St. house, including its gables, varying roof lines, fourth-floor ornamental tower capped by a cupola.

Damage is estimated at more than $400,000.

Burkush said the cupola had been weakened by the fire and city building inspectors said it could collapse. Another cupola atop the former stable was destroyed.

Even with the fire under control, about 550 customers of Public Service of New Hampshire were without power. A city official said electricity may not be restored until early this morning.

Lisa C. Michaud of the American Red Cross said three of the apartments had been vacant.

The fire was so intense that the heat could be felt from a block away on Orange Street.

"At one point it was so hot we were standing on the street and we could feel the heat," said Manchester resident Nick Curcio, 24, who stood a block from the fire.

Manchester resident Keith Ford said he was walking by the house with Curcio when he saw the fire.

Manchester police were first to arrive and started banging on doors, Ford said.

"Two cops went inside and started banging on doors. They were saying, 'Fire!' making sure everyone was OK. I heard one cop say 'Everyone out of the building,'" Ford said.

Fearing someone could get hurt by the many cars driving pass the fire to snap photos, former Boy Scout Tony Houst, 21, of 125 Orange St., donned a construction hard hat, pulled a black bandana over his face to ward off smoke and began directing traffic in the middle of Orange Street.

"When I saw people keep coming in their cars taking both their hands of the wheel to take pictures as their cars were still moving, I needed to make sure we took steps to prevent accidents from happening," Houst explained. Houst remained on scene until Nashua Ladder 2 arrived to help fight the fire from the Orange Street side of the building.

The house is owned by Richard Bisson.

Copyright 2012 - The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester

McClatchy-Tribune News Service