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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.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 September 2013 02:44

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Early Sunday morning fire guts good portion of former Aubuchon's building in Laconia

LACONIA — Officials estimate a fire in the former Skate Escape/Aubuchon Hardware building on the corner or Fair and Court Streets caused over $1-million in damages early Sunday morning. From the street, approximately two-thirds of the building at 161 Court Street appears to have been gutted.

Chief Ken Erickson said the blaze was fueled in part by an old asphalt/wood roof under a newer rubber membrane.

Erickson said firefighters responded to an alarm at 2:30 a.m. and called immediately for a second alarm when they saw smoke billowing from eaves around the roof. The blaze went to three-alarms and crews from as far away as Concord and Holderness Lakes Region firefighters to battle the blaze.

According to city records, the 27,000-square-foot building has been owned since 2004 by M.T. McCarthy Realty Holdings. The building is subdivided into five rental spaces. Current tenants include LRGHealthcare (laundry facility), Little Ceasars Pizza and Northeast Electrical Solutions.

Most locals referred to the building as Aubuchon's until the hardware store company closed its doors several years ago. More recently the same space has home to Skate Escape but that business in also now closed.

The front portion of the building, roughly a 50-ft. X 50-ft. square was to be torn down to help make way for the Advanced Auto Parts Store that is in the early stages of construction in the southwest corner of the lot.

Erickson said firefighters were able to spare the LRGHealthcare laundry, which is on the Fair Street side of the building. An additional fire on Bay Street, which is one street west of Fair St. may have been started by embers flying from the building despite Sunday's rain.

No one was injured and Erickson said the cause of the blaze remains under investigation.

 

 

 

Last Updated on Monday, 23 September 2013 01:35

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Housing authority will use block grant to plan improvements to Stafford House

LACONIA — The Laconia Housing Authority (LHA) has been awarded two Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) planning grants by the Community Development Finance Authority (CDFA) in Concord totaling $24,000.

The first planning grant is to be used to examine the physical needs of the Stafford House, a 50 unit residential development at the corner of Church and Main Streets in downtown Laconia.

The CDBG funds, in conjunction with matching funds from LHA, will be used to perform an energy audit of the building and prepare a capital needs assessment of all of the other building systems. The results of the study will be used to prepare a CDBG implementation grant application to fund the building improvements. The new application for funding will likely be submitted to the CDFA in January of 2014. The planning study will be performed by the Resilient Buildings Group, a subsidiary of the Jordan Institute, from Concord.

The second planning grant will be used to analyze the space needs at the central office of the Laconia Housing Authority at 25 Union Avenue. The study, to be performed by the Laconia firm of Misiaszek Turpin, will examine the current office needs of LHA staff and make recommendations for the appropriate amount of office space and the optimal layout. Consideration will be given to utilizing the existing office space as well as other alternatives in the downtown area.

Laconia Housing Authority owns 311 units of service enriched housing for seniors and families in the greater Laconia area as well as administering 407 housing rent subsidies through the federal Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program.

Last Updated on Saturday, 21 September 2013 03:05

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Defense motion relative to what jury might know about eye witness leads to postponement of sex assault trial

LACONIA — The jury trial of a Tilton man who was charged in January with one count each of aggravated felonious sexual assault and indecent exposure was postponed last week while the court considers a motion filed by his defense team regarding the actions of his accusers.

Thomas Gardner, 55, of Sanborn Road was arrested by Tilton Police on January 16 — about a week after two men, Joseph Ernst and Mark Corenti, reported to police they had seen him performing a sex act in his car on a disabled 20-year-old man while parked in a manufactured housing park off School Street in Tilton.

According to paperwork filed with the Superior Court, the defense said it has recently learned that Tilton Police officers investigated a reported theft at Sherryland Park four days later and the two men who reported Gardner for sexual assault were suspects in the alleged theft.

While being questioned about the alleged theft, one of the men is said to have told a Tilton Police Officer that if the police were to charge him with theft, he would refuse to testify in the rape he says he witnessed.

New filings also indicated that the officer who was investigating the reported theft from Sherryland Park was not involved in the investigation regarding Gardner's alleged rape of the disabled man.

Belknap County Superior Court Judge James O'Neill had previously denied a motion filed by Gardner's defense team to let similar evidence be presented to the jury. With the new information, Gardner's defense team asked the judge to reconsider his earlier ruling and allow what they consider exculpatory evidence to be given to the jury.

Gardner's defense team said it got the information on September 12, which was after jury selection on September 9. The court had already ordered the prosecution to provide any exculpatory evidence to the defense and, with this new information, Gardner's defense team said in its motion it wants to pursue a different theory of the case — namely that Ernst and Corenti made up the story about Gardner and young disabled man because they were at the park unlawfully.

The state's case is pretty cut and dry. Police and prosecutors contend Gardner took the 20-year-old disabled man who was left in his care to Sherryland Park, where he had him perform a sex act. The victim is unable to communicate and, according to police affidavits filed in January, has two brain disorders, is autistic, and epileptic.
Ernst and Corenti told detectives they were at Sherryland Park looking for a mobile home that they thought was for sale. One of them said he went up to Gardner's Volkswagen to ask him if he knew anything about the trailers.

The man said he initially thought Gardner was alone but when he went to his window he allegedly saw the two men engaged in a sexual act.

The men called 9-1-1 to report what he saw and gave police the license plate number of Gardner's Volkswagen but his cell phone connection died. The witness called police back about an hour later to report the same Volkswagen was now parked in the driveway of a house on Sanborn Road.

Police went to Gardner's house and said he didn't seem upset or defensive by what they were saying. He offered to take a lie-detector test so police would know he hadn't done anything wrong. Affidavits also reflected that Gardner asked police what would happen to his accusers if police determined they were lying.

The court has denied the Gardner's request for a lie-detector test to be presented to the jury.

Court filings show Corente has been convicted of two felony counts of driving after being deemed a habitual offender, one conviction for misdemeanor theft, one conviction for possession of heroin, and one conviction for bail jumping. The court ruled this evidence could be given to the jury if Corente were to testify against Gardner.

The same police affidavit said Gardner was initially reluctant to allow detectives to enter the home to make sure the disabled man was unharmed. Gardner eventually did consent however police found the alleged victim to be so severely disabled they were unable to communicate with him.

Gardner told detectives he and the alleged victim had gone for a ride and had stopped at Sherryland Park to see if the view was different as some trees had recently be removed.

No date has been set for the motion hearing and new trial.

Last Updated on Saturday, 21 September 2013 02:57

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