Court Street fire claims contents of several businesses

LACONIA — As construction goes on in the front parking lot of the large commercial building that marks the corner of Fair and Court Streets, city fire officials are combing through the charred remains of the structure to find the cause of a three-alarm fire that gutted most of it early Sunday morning.

The fire burned out all but one of the seven businesses that operated from the building, constructed in the early 1970s, that many still refer to as Aubuchon's, even though the hardware store company left the city some years ago.

"At this time we have no reason to think it's suspicious," said Fire Chief Ken Erickson yesterday afternoon. He said his team along with a representative of the N.H. Fire Marshals Office will return to the building today for additional inspection.

Laconia firefighters were alerted to the blaze at 2:30 a.m. Sunday when an alarm sounded from the space at 161 Court Street that had been occupied by Skate Escape until August 1. He said the first responders saw smoke pouring from the eaves and immediately called for a second alarm. A third alarm was called about an hour later.

At the height of the blaze, Erickson said they had four ladder trucks — one each from Laconia, Meredith, Concord, and Franklin — pouring water from above onto the fire and 50 firefighters spraying water into the fire from the Court Street side of the building.

All totaled, he said firefighters from nine departments plus Stewart's Ambulance spent 13 hours fighting the fire. He said at one point Sunday morning all but one or two of his trucks had left the area but needed to return to extinguish some fire that continued burning in the eaves.

"Most of the building has no windows," said Erickson, explaining one of the things that hampered firefighters' efforts.

The building is about 27,000-square-feet and Erickson said it is broken into various condominium units. He said some of them have spaces between them, however the entire structure was capped with a rubber-membrane roof.

He said the rubber roof prevented any of the water from getting into the building and the water being sprayed from hoses into the front of the building, where there were windows, wasn't reaching the fire. He said knowing it was unoccupied, it was not safe to allow any firefighters into the building.

He said there were six to eight separate layers to the roof in some places including a layer of asphalt, some insulation, wood layers, and more insulation — all covered by the rubber membrane.

He said gasses from the heat and the flames kept spreading internally and were fed by the asphalt but until the rubber part of the roof began to collapse, it was difficult to get water to the interior part of the building where the fire burned at its hottest.

He said his crews knocked down the exterior wall closest to the Meredith Bridge Cemetery on Sunday because it was unstable and he feared it would fall.

Crews were able to save the LRGHealthcare laundry facility that processes all of the laundry for the hospitals in Laconia and Franklin. Erickson said there was "hundreds of thousands of dollars" of industrial laundry equipment that was spared except for some water damage.

The laundry is located on the Fair Street side of the building.

Erickson said the city building inspector said yesterday the the laundry portion of the building has to be inspected for electrical and physical soundness and must be professionally cleaned before operations can restart.

According to LRGHealthcare Public Relations Director Sandy Marshall, the hospital will keep all of its employees working until the laundry is running again.

"We'll blend them into the rest of our staff," she said. She said the company that maintains the equipment will be on site this morning and until then, her company won't know the true post-fire condition of the machinery.

Marshall said yesterday that the hospital has two to three days supply of clean linen in the hospitals. She also said that LRGHealthcare has had a contingency plan in place for the past few years that includes subcontracting some of the laundry work to Kleen Linen of Lebanon and sending some of it to the Belknap County Nursing Home.

"The Fire Department has been wonderful," Marshall said, noting that they allowed them to remove the LRGHealthcare trucks that were in the building and that firefighters were able to salvage a great deal of their laundry that was wrapped and ready to go back to the hospital.

Gregg Selesky, the manager of Northeast Utilities Solutions and said yesterday he had two work vans and his work boat that he uses to work on island properties burned in the blaze. Fortunately, said Selesky, he had one of his work vans home with him so he can still operate on a limited basis.

He said all of his equipment and his computers were lost, although he said his customer and inventory files were housed in a carbon-fiber holder and he may be able to recover the information.

Selesky said yesterday that he is a member of the Grace Capital Church and one of his fellow church members has offered him some office space so he can continue working while his insurance company processes his claim.

"We're just fortunate that no one was hurt," Selesky said yesterday as he and a few of his employees looked in the building at their charred work trucks.

Erickson said the Sunday morning's rain was the thing that allowed them to spare the hospital's laundry operation.

He said when firefighters first arrived, it wasn't raining and it was very windy. The rain began about an hour into the blaze.

He said as portions of the roof would collapse, embers would fly into the wind that would take them toward the cemetery. He said the rain extinguished them before they could land and that embers were found as far away as Pleasant Street.

"Had it not started raining or had the wind been blowing in a different direction, we would have had to concentrate on saving the buildings on Fair and Court Streets and we wouldn't have been able to concentrate on the laundry," he said.

As it was, Erickson said the city water director told him they used 75,000 gallons of water from the city and he estimates they pumped about 200,000 gallons from the nearby Winnipesaukee River.

Erickson said that part of the city has a number of older wooden buildings and had it been dry and had the wind been blowing in a different direction, it could have been catastrophic.

According to Planning Director Shanna Saunders, the "old Aubuchon" building was currently home to seven separate businesses.

Saunders said six business were destroyed — Little Caesars Pizza; Skate Escape— which has been closed but all of the equipment was still in the building, Inside Outlook, which used the building for its custom curtain and home improvement operation, ABC Fabricating, and a small one-person engraving shop.

Inside Outlook owner Bruce Hamel said he has three employees that he will keep working as he looks for another space and gets the company back up and running. He said the company lost all of its fabrics as well as 12 "very sophisticated" machines used for making curtains, quilts, duvets, and other home furnishings.

Erickson said Gov. Maggie Hassan has called him and offered the services of state.

Saunders said the Department of Resource and Economic Development has offered to help the city assist companies that may have to layoff some of their employees.

Laurie Crete and her family own the home on Fair Street that is right next to the building that burned.

She said yesterday that she didn't hear anything until the firefighters came banging on her door.

"They told us to get out," she said.

"I got dressed, grabbed a bottle of water, my camera and my cat," she said. Crete said her car was parked in the courtyard (or between the two portions of her duplex house) and her husband's motorcycle was parked in a barn on the property. She said firefighters let him retrieve it.

Crete said when she went outside, she could see the smoke and embers flying about and "lots of fire trucks."

She said they stayed with relatives for the night.

"I guess we're really lucky," she said, adding she was able to return to her home around 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

Erickson said that the construction of the Advanced Auto Parts Store that is being built up on the Court Street side of the property will continue.

He said the owner's plan was to tear down the front portion of the building — about 50-ft. X 50-ft. to better accommodate the auto parts store.

"I think they just wanted a flat facade," he said.

The owner of the building, M.T, McCarthy Realty Holdings, Inc. could not be reached for comment. According to Laconia on-line assessing records the building was owned in two parts — the LRGHealthcare laundry space that is valued at $178,000 and the rest of the land and building valued at $725,200.

Erickson said that when the value of the building is added to the value of the contents, the losses will exceed $1 million.