Pitman's appears to be arson target; 2nd time this fall

LACONIA — For the second time in a month, it appears Pitman's Freight Room on New Salem Street has been the target of an arsonist.

At 3:05 a.m. yesterday, firefighters again responded to the live entertainment venue and function hall to extinguish a fire that started and burned in the exact same area as a fire that that burned on September 28.

Firefighters also responded at the same time to three additional fires that were apparently set in two dumpsters and a wooden fence behind the Beacon Street West building (Streetcar Place) that houses Hector's restaurant and other businesses and offices.

"This is really upsetting," said Pitman's manager Maureen Bienairz-Pond as she surveyed the damage around noon yesterday. "This is my second home."

Last night there was supposed to be a Halloween party at Pitman's that was slated to be the grand re-opening. This weekend a blues band was scheduled to perform, but Bienairz-Pond said yesterday that all upcoming events again needed to be canceled.

At least three representatives from the N.H. Fire Marshal's Office and Laconia Fire Chief Ken Erickson and Deputy Charlie Boffo were at Pitman's yesterday morning.

The calls came in to Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid and were reported as two building fires burning at the same time — one on Water Street and one on New Salem Street. Red smoke could be seen billowing from the area as city police cruisers crawled slowly around the nearby streets and neighborhoods looking for anyone who may have seen or heard anything out of the ordinary.

Firefighters from Laconia, Gilford, Belmont worked for about an hour to extinguish the fires in what seemed to be an otherwise vacant city.

Erickson said yesterday that the smoke was so thick when the first firefighters arrived at Pitman's, the lieutenant in charged was barely able to see the building. He also said the smoke alarms didn't sound. The fire was reported by a passerby.

Firefighters quickly knocked down the flames that charred the porch on the railroad tracks side of the building – away from the street — and shot up through the heating system, that had just been replaced because of the September fire.

This time, the fire burned through a corner of an attached building owned by David Gammon, and Sheila and Steve Bartlett. The September fire didn't reach that building.

Erickson said the September fire set off the smoke alarms that alerted firefighters who were nearby because they were returning from a different calls. Last night, firefighters responded initially from the main, North Main Street, station.

Gammon, a former city councilor, said yesterday that he has no idea what's going on but said having someone apparently running around the city setting fires is very unsettling.

He said the only hidden place around Pitman's and the adjacent antique shop run by his sister is the back porch where both of the fires have been started. He also said that as far as his building is concerned, he knows it's going to get somewhat wet during the rain but said he will have to replace the corner of the roof and the flashing around the chimney.

Erickson estimated the damage done to both buildings at around $30,000.

Councilor Matt Lahey also went to see the damage yesterday and called the fires "disconcerting."

Counting the fires last night, there have been four multi-alarm fires in the city — starting with the September 22 three-alarm blaze that gutted the commercial building on the corner of Fair and Court Streets. A second fire during the same time charred a garage on Bay Street.

The next weekend a two-alarm blaze destroyed the former motel of the Christmas Island Steak House that had been slated for demolition. The same weekend, Pitman's Freight Room burned the first time and three other smaller suspicious fires were extinguished around the Water Street area.

Police Capt. Bill Clary is leading the city's investigation.

"We are obviously seeking the public's help," Clary said yesterday afternoon. "This is is priority for us right now and we're committing lots of resources to it."

"We're hoping we can find anyone who saw anything or anyone before or after any one of these fires," he said.

He said all angles are being actively investigated. He noted that spite, thrills, and financial gain are all possible motives for arson but declined to comment specifically about any of the recent fires.

Clary said there is up to a $1,000 reward for arrests and convictions that come from the Greater Laconia Crime Line at 524-1717 which is anonymous. Police can also be reached by calling 524-5252 or by going to www.laconiapd.org and clicking on the anonymous tip icon.