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December 25. 2012 8:30PM

Another fire ravages business district in St. Johnsbury, Vt.


Spectators across Railroad Street in downtown St. Johnsbury, Vt., Monday view the badly damaged building that housed a flower shop and a dozen apartments. The building burned on Sunday due to faulty wiring, according to St. Johnsbury Fire Chief Todd Ruggles. (BOB HOOKWAY PHOTO)
ST. JOHNSBURY, VT. - Another major downtown fire hit St. Johnsbury, Vt., Sunday in the business district that has become something of a magnet for such fires over the past 12 years.

This time, a dozen apartments and a florist shop in a 19th century building were destroyed and at least 15 residents were left homeless as Christmas approached.

Although no one was seriously injured in the fire that broke out Sunday afternoon, five St. Johnsbury firefighters were forced to jump to safety from the three-story building and required hospital treatment, chief Troy Ruggles, said Monday.

"They were cut off by flames and they had to bail out of a window. They were hurt in the falls, but they were treated and released," said Ruggles who was still at the scene at midday Monday.

The chief said he had just determined that faulty wiring was the cause of the fire in the 133-year-old wood frame building with a brick facade that faced Railroad Street, the town's main business thoroughfare.

"There was a cluster of wires in a partitioned wall. The fire started there and traveled up through. It's what we call 'balloon' construction. The fire can stay hidden in there for a long time before it erupts," said Ruggles, who's been chief of the 27-firefighter department for 15 years.

The Red Cross was on the scene Sunday to find temporary housing for the displaced residents, and to provide food and beverages for firefighters from St. Johnsbury, Lyndonville, Concord, Waterford, Barnet and Danville in Vermont, and Littleton, N.H.

Firefighters worked through the night, pouring water on what's been known for years as the Landry Building, and protecting buildings on either side of it. The first units arrived at 2:15 p.m. Sunday, but the fire was not declared out until 9 a.m. Monday, Ruggles said.

The building was uninsured, according to Ruggles. As he spoke, the building's owner, Bruno Ravel, and his accountant, Robert Renaud, both of St. Johnsbury, sat in a parked car nearby.

"We're going to get an engineer to evaluate the building and get some options," Renaud said during a brief interview. The two men then drove from the scene.

The flower shop, Artistic Gardens, was on the ground floor, as was a closed St. Johnsbury business landmark, Landry's Drug Store, that was known to everyone for years.

The drug store closed its doors in the past two years when the last elderly owner died, Ruggles said.

On a frigid night in 2000, three men were killed when the Daniels Building in downtown St. Johnsbury went up in flames.

In 2008, some 18 area fire departments fought a six-alarm fire above a convenience store that destroyed several businesses and apartments.

No one was killed or seriously injured in that fire.

But in 2003, after family members, including some from out of the area, gathered at a Boynton Avenue residence off Main Street to celebrate the holidays.

A fire there claimed the lives of two women.

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Bob Hookway may be reached at bhookway@newstote.com.



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