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Adjacent apartment buildings burn in Bristol displacing two dozen, firefighter treated for exhaustion

Union Leader Correspondent

September 04. 2018 7:37PM
An early morning fire on Tuesday destroyed the apartment buildings at 40 and 50 Beech St. Authorities said the fire, which began in the rear of 50 Beech St., displaced two dozen people and is under investigation. (John Koziol/Union Leader Correspondent)

BRISTOL — About two dozen people were displaced early Tuesday morning when a fire at a multi-unit dwelling on Beech Street spread to an adjacent apartment building, destroying both.

Bristol Fire Chief Ken LaRoche said the fire was reported about 4:50 a.m. and appears to have begun at the rear of the property at 50 Beech St. and quickly spread next door to 40 Beech St.

The two-story buildings, which town assessing records say were built in 1900, each contained five apartments and were fully occupied.

All of the residents and guests were unharmed and able to evacuate except one, the chief said. That individual, due to a mobility issue, required the assistance of first responders. Two cats are believed to have perished.

One firefighter was treated at the scene for exhaustion, LaRoche said.

The American Red Cross set up a relief operation at nearby Bristol United Church of Christ to which the pastor, the Rev. Andrew MacLeod, had just returned Tuesday from a three-month sabbatical.

“This is what we do,” said MacLeod as Red Cross officials and volunteers mingled with fire victims, among them William Belser.

Belser, 71, a native of Alexandria and a lifelong resident of the Newfound area, arrived at the church dressed in a bath robe and accompanied by two sons, a daughter, and Rocky, his 16-year-old shittzu. He said he considers himself fortunate despite losing nearly all his possessions.

A veteran of the U.S. Army who served in Vietnam, Belser suffers from COPD and other medical challenges. He lived in a first-floor apartment at 40 Beech St. for the past two years with his sons, while his daughter, who is also his caregiver, lived in a connecting apartment.

“We heard a noise outside,” Belser said, and then he saw what he described as a “ball of fire right beside the house,” maybe 40 feet away from his apartment.

An apartment and belongings “I can replace,” said Belser, who has renter’s insurance, “but a family I can’t.”

Belser praised firefighters and called their actions on a muggy morning “beautiful.”

Carl Grace, who lived in an apartment on the second floor at 40 Beech St., said he was warned of the fire by a flurry of phone calls that woke him and his girlfriend. The couple were able to gather their puppy and two cats, but a third feline, Lucy Liu, aka “Fat Cat,” is missing.

When he came down to the first floor, “I could see the glow of the fire and within 10 minutes our apartment was engulfed,” he said.

Unlike Belser, Grace said he wasn’t insured.

“There’s nothing, There’s no apartment,” Grace said. In addition to other belongings, the fire claimed the several medicines he has been taking after recently completing chemotherapy treatment for cancer. A long-time area resident, Grace was hopeful the Red Cross would help him and his girlfriend get back on their feet.

A Red Cross disaster-action team was working with displaced tenants, said Lloyd Ziel, the organization’s chief communications officer for New Hampshire and Vermont. He said that while the Red Cross was helping victims of the four-alarm fire in Bristol, it was doing the same in Cavendish, Vt., which was dealing with its own four-alarm blaze.

Ziel called the Bristol fire a “major” one and said the needs of victims are going to vary, which is why the Red Cross gives them pre-paid credit cards to allow them to prioritize what they require most, be it lodging, clothing, food or something else.

“This is a stop-gap emergency response for them,” said Ziel.

Annually, the Red Cross helps about 1,200 displaced people in New Hampshire and Vermont, he said, which works out to about one person every 17 hours.

Ziel thanked MacLeod and the church for providing fire victims and the Red Cross a place to gather.

Chief LaRoche said the fire took about two hours to contain, with firefighters doing predominantly an external attack. It quickly went to four alarms when it became apparent that not enough water could be put on it from nearby hydrants.

The fourth alarm summoned tanker trucks from around the region that pulled water from the Newfound River in downtown Bristol, with Central Square being closed to traffic for several hours to facilitate that effort, said LaRoche.

The chief said the state Fire Marshal had been called to the scene but the fire does not appear to be suspicious.

While neither building had sprinklers, LaRoche believes smoke detectors in each sounded and alerted occupants.

General News Bristol

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