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The Caledonian-Record | St. Johnsbury, VT

home : top news : top news February 26, 2015

12/24/2012 8:26:00 AM
Fire Destroys Downtown Block
James Jardine
Staff Writer

Two businesses and 12 apartments were destroyed in a fire that ravaged a downtown St. Johnsbury building Sunday afternoon. There was no loss of life and only minor injuries were reported

Firefighters from all nearby Vermont towns as well as the Littleton, N.H., contained the fire to the 1879 Building on Railroad Street, although there were some reports of smoke damage in a neighboring building. All of the tenants in the destroyed building escaped safely from the fire and are receiving help from local chapters of the Vermont Red Cross.

Firefighters were toned out at 2:12 p.m. to fight the fire at 430-438 Railroad St. Firefighters from Littleton, N.H., Danville, Lyndonville, Barnet, Peacham, Waterford, East Burke, and Concord responded to the fire with the Lyndonville ladder truck and the Littleton, N.H., ladder truck mounting an aerial attack and pouring water onto the building for hours. CALEX and Lyndon Rescue were also summoned as well.

A large crowd of onlookers followed the fire's progress, held back by St. Johnsbury police officers who erected wooden barricades and used yellow police line to secure the scene.

According to St. Johnsbury dispatch, as of 10 p.m., the Railroad Street fire had not been declared under control, as firefighters continued to pour water on the building for eight hours without letup.

Dispatch reported three injuries to firefighters, all minor and all of those injured were able to continue on scene. At one point, a Mayday alarm was sounded because firefighters were briefly trapped on the third floor of the burning building. The firefighters quickly escaped, however.

St. Johnsbury Select Board Chairman James Rust said there was concern that the structural integrity of the Landry building may have been impaired by the fire. St. Johnsbury Police Chief Clem Houde also expressed concern about the building's safety. The building, according to Rust, is a wood frame building with a brick facade on the front. No officials from St. Johnsbury Fire Department were available as of press time.

Numerous witnesses said the first indication of a fire in the building was when flames were spotted coming out of second floor windows on the front of the building. The second and third floor of the building house apartments while the first floor houses the closed drug store, operated for many years by the parents of the present building owner, Bruno Ravel, St. Johnsbury.

St. Johnsbury Fire Chief Troy Ruggles was out of town when the fire was first called in and Assistant Chief Marc LaRose commanded the St. Johnsbury firefighters until Chief Ruggles was able to return to town and take over command.

Barb Byrne, with the Caledonia County Chapter of the Red Cross assisted by Aden Heuslein, with the Orleans County Chapter of the Red Cross, said the Red Cross had served over 300 meals to firefighters, police and other first responders as well as everyone displaced by the fire. By early Sunday evening, Red Cross teams, set up in the ground floor of the Pomerleau Building, had opened 12 cases involving at least 15 residents displaced by the fire. Those who lived in the destroyed building or in an adjacent building who are unable to spend the night there, will all be placed in motel rooms for the night. The Red Cross volunteers said they will remain available to those in need as long as their services are needed.

Rural Edge, formerly Gilman Housing Trust, operates senior housing in a new building just down the street from the fire. According to Emily Keith, the Director of Community Building Organization, said all of the tenants were safe and were free to remain in their apartments during and after the fire. The eight-year-old building replaced a downtown block destroyed in another major St. Johnsbury fire just over a decade ago. Keith said the steel and concrete, fully sprinklered building was untouched by the fire and escaped any smoke or water damage.

A building, known as the "1867 Block" and also operated by Gilman Housing, also houses senior citizen housing and also was undamaged.

Rust and State Rep. Bob South both said they would be in touch with state officials first thing Monday morning to seek a swift state response to the downtown disaster. St. Johnsbury Chamber Executive Director Scott Beck said, "we don't need another cellar hole downtown." St. Johnsbury community leaders present at the scene all commented that the town must move quickly to rebuild the Railroad Street district as quickly as possible.

As the firefighters continued to pour water on the blaze, the enormous amount of water diverted onto the blaze is believed to have triggered a fire alarm system and activated a sprinkler system because of low pressure at a state office building located on Eastern Avenue. Firefighters were diverted to the state building, but quickly turned off the sprinkler, which was only activated in a control room, and determined there was no fire. East Burke stood by until the building manager could be located.

Another disruption occurred when a structure fire in McIndoes Falls drew firefighters from the on scene Barnet fire department to assist in Ryegate. Twin State Mutual Aid relied on N.H. fire departments across the river from Ryegate to respond to the structure fire.

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