October 01. 2013 8:43PM

Ex-fire inspector testifies he knew Colebrook gunpowder plant owner

Special to the Union Leader

LANCASTER — The former New Hampshire State Fire Marshal’s Office inspector who discovered the remains of two workers following a 2010 explosion at a Colebrook gunpowder plant took the witness stand Tuesday in Coos County Superior Court.

Charles Chalk, who was also deputy fire chief for the town of Hudson at one time, testified in the trial of Craig Sanborn, 64, of Maidstone, Vt., who owned the Black Mag plant when an explosion there three years ago killed Donald Kendall, 56, of Colebrook and Jesse Kennett, 49, of Stratford.

Chalk, who said his duties for the fire marshal had centered primarily in Coos County, told prosecutor John McCormick that he was traveling south from Stewartstown the day of the blast when he heard a radio report that “something was going on” in Colebrook.

He said he soon saw smoke, and headed toward the scene at 23 Gould St. downtown.

“The fire department told me there had been an explosion. I called the Fire Marshal’s office in Concord, and they told me to go ahead and respond.

“When I got there, there was a debris field. The fire had been extinguished, and large volumes of water were flowing out of the building,” he said.

McCormick had Chalk step to an easel at the center of the courtroom and draw a diagram of the building, putting two circles at the approximate locations of the bodies of Kendall and Kennett.

“Did you view the remains?” McCormick asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Did you attempt to revive them?” Chalk said he had not.

“They were deceased at that time?” the prosecutor asked.

“Yes, they were,” Chalk said.

Judge Peter H. Bornstein approved McCormick’s motion to have the drawing tagged as an exhibit the jury can examine during deliberations that follow what’s expected to be at least a two-and-a-half week trial.

There are 14 jurors — nine women and five men — including two alternates.

Chalk testified that the day of the explosion was not the first time he had been to the plant. He said he had done a preliminary inspection there in 2009 at the request of Sanborn, whom he had known earlier and for whom he tested and reviewed firearms products in Chalk’s role as an outdoor writer for several publications.

“It was just a large, empty warehouse-type structure,” in 2009, Chalk said, adding that Sanborn needed a permit from the state before he could go forward with his plans for the property.

“I was looking for egress — ways to get out of the building — lighting, a sprinkler system, a fire alarm system. At that time, he needed a basic fire inspection to continue,” Chalk said.

During cross examination Tuesday, Chalk and defense attorney Mark Sisti got into a lengthy dispute over exactly when Chalk became aware that the building would be used to manufacture gunpowder.

Chalk said, although he’d had a number of dealings with Sanborn including traveling to weapons industry trade shows with him and helping Sanborn look for commercial property in Maine, he hadn’t been aware of the building’s use as a gunpowder plant until the day of the explosion.

“Are you sure of that? Is that what you want to tell this jury?” Sisti asked him.

“Yes, sir,” Chalk replied.

“Are you telling the truth right now?” Sisti continued.

“He did not tell me it would be used for the production of powder,” Chalk said.

Sanborn faces two counts each of manslaughter and negligent homicide. Manslaughter is a Class A felony, and each count carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.

Negligent homicide is a Class B felony, and a conviction on each count is punishable by 3½ to 7 years in prison.

However, McCormick, the Coos County attorney, could pursue the case as a matter of “alternate sentencing” in which — were Sanborn convicted on all counts — McCormick could choose which counts would be used for sentencing purposes.

In a brief interview during a courtroom break Tuesday, he declined to say what he’d do if the jury convicts Sanborn.

“We’re going for convictions; I won’t go into any more on that,” he said.