Stefan Hard/Times Argus
Firefighters direct water onto a fire in a vacant, three-story bank building in Barre, Vt., Monday, May 31, 2010.
BARRE – The first time fire trucks traveled down North Main Street on Monday it was for show. The second time it was for real.
Hours after returning to quarters following Barre's annual Memorial Day parade, fire trucks went screaming back toward City Hall Park where a third-floor fire of undetermined origin was already doing a number on a century-old building that was recently purchased by Mayor Thomas Lauzon.
The shell of the vacant brick bank building, known locally as the Aldrich Block, is still standing at the corner of North Main and Elm Streets, but its fate is uncertain, according to Lauzon, who watched in dismay as nearly 130 firefighters from more than a dozen area departments battled the blaze that wouldn't go out.
“What can you do?” Lauzon shrugged.
Although firefighters, who were summoned to the scene shortly after 3 p.m., had the fire under control in less than 90 minutes, putting it out was another matter entirely. Several ladder trucks were mobilized on both of the building's exposed sides in an effort to get water on a fire that clearly started on the third floor. However, given the location of the fire a direct attack was never really possible
Firefighters first on the scene smashed second- and third-floor windows of the structure which was built across the street from Aldrich Public Library in 1910, sending thick black smoke billowing into the sky. The smoke got thicker and blacker as the fire ate through the rubber membrane roof of the building in less than an hour and portions of – if not all – the third floor reportedly collapsed.
“It's gone,” Lauzon said.
Firefighters continually pushed a growing crowd back, expressing concern for the structural integrity of the building and making room for two large trees they cut down with chainsaws in order to get a better angle on the fire.
If there was an upside to their efforts the neighboring building owned by John Ormsby was not damaged though it very easily could have been if firefighters hadn't mobilized swiftly and taken care to keep the fire from spreading in that direction.
It didn't take long for firefighters who were first on the scene to call for backup and before long firefighters from Barre Town, Berlin, East Montpelier, Montpelier, Northfield, Plainfield, Waterbury, Williamstown, Washington, Woodbury, Brookfield and East Randolph were on scene.
In order to ease pressure on surrounding fire hydrants several of those departments were deployed shuttling water from the nearby Stevens Branch of the Winooski River for use fighting the fire.
Firefighters from Hardwick and Morrisville provided back up in central Vermont.
Chief Tim Bombardier said the building's flat rubber membrane roof was an obstacle to firefighters crediting Deputy Chief Joe Aldsworth for recommended the fire be allowed to burn through the roof giving surrounding tower trucks a better chance to douse the blaze.
“That was a good call,” Bombardier said, as firefighters were mopping up the scene at 8 p.m.
Several tower trucks remained mobilized and the road was still closed on the off chance the fire might rekindle. Bombardier said he hoped North Main and Elm Streets could be opened to through traffic by dark, but noted firefighters would remain on the scene through the night as a precaution.
According to Bombardier, most, if not all, of the actual fire damage was confined to the third floor and a cursory review of the building with an engineer suggested it appeared structurally sound.
Several firefighters expressed surprised the building was still in tact.
“I thought we were going to lose it for sure, “ said Matt Cetin.
Bombardier said he could not hazard a guess as to the cause of the fire.
“We won't know until we get in there,” he said, suggesting the earliest that might happen is today.
Lauzon said firefighters can rule out the possibility of an electrical fire.
“It happened on the third floor where there's not power and there's really nothing to burn,” he said, noting he has toured the building several times a week since buying it recently and was last in it on Saturday.
Lauzon said he was heartened that at first glance the historic building appeared to be salvageable.
“Preliminarily it looks like its sound,” he said, stressing that he will wait for a comprehensive structural analysis of the building before deciding how to proceed.
“That's the big question mark now,” he said, nodding at the building. “I'm sure not going to leave it like this.”
Monday was something of a surreal holiday for Lauzon, who mowing the lawn when he learned his building was on fire. Earlier in the day Lauzon led the Memorial Day parade right past that building and delivered a stirring speech to a crowd that gathered around City Hall Park – some standing a few feet from the now partially gutted structure.
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