But thanks to a building sprinkler system that worked as intended, the fire was kept in check until firefighters arrived, avoiding what could have been a disaster, fire officials said.
Yesterday at 9:15 a.m., a master box alarm sounded at 50 Washington St., also known as the Finney 1882 building, alerting police and firefighters, as well as workers and residents in the building. The four-story building houses the offices of Essex Management Group and 16 condominiums.
"If the building didn't have a sprinkler system, it's possible we could have lost the unit," said acting fire Chief Richard Borden. "Everything worked as it should have."
Borden said a preliminary investigation shows the fire was apparently caused by a problem with electrical wiring. The fire was in a wall between a boiler room and a condominium owned by Jay Johnson, Borden said.
He said the building's fire alarm was automatically triggered after sensing the fire and sent an immediate signal to the Fire Department's dispatch center in the police station. The building's sprinkler system kicked in and kept the fire contained to a single fourth-floor condominium, he said.
Johnson was not home at the time, according to other tenants.
Yesterday's fire was similar to one that happened June 14 at Jaques/Pilling Place, 67 Washington St., which is across the street from the Finney building. A fire broke out in that 30-unit building and also was kept in check by a sprinkler system until firefighters arrived and extinguished the flames.
Lana Dorsey, whose second-floor condo is two floors below the condo where yesterday's fire broke out, said she was first alerted to a problem by the building's fire alarm, and then by dripping water.
"Sometimes the alarm just goes off," Dorsey said.
"I placed a pot in the bathroom, thinking it was just a leak," she said of water dripping from the ceiling. "Then the floors started getting wet, and water began coming through the ceilings and light fixtures."
Dorsey said she then smelled smoke, prompting her to leave the building by taking the stairs.
"I'm one of the few residents who are home during the day," Dorsey said. "I didn't have time to do anything except to get out of the building."
She watched from the other side of the street as firefighters broke through windows of the fourth-floor condo to ventilate smoke and bring the fire under control.
"There was some fire damage and water damage to the floors below," Borden said.
Building maintenance supervisor Bob Allen was just arriving to work at the Finney building when he noticed smoke coming from a fourth-floor condo. He dialed 911, then entered the building to help evacuate it.
"I kicked in the door of unit 4A and called out to see if anyone was inside," Allen said of Johnson's condo. "The smoke was so thick I couldn't tell where the fire was. I had to get out of there. On my way out of the building, I was met by firefighters who were heading inside."
"This was a big save for our Fire Department," Allen said. "One thing about these old buildings is that they can go (up in flames) fast."
A section of Washington Street that was soaked by water used to fight yesterday's fire had to be sanded and salted before vehicles were allowed to use the street again.
The Finney building on the south side of Washington Street is one of a string of brick buildings downtown that were erected in the months after the fire of 1882 that destroyed much of downtown. It was the worst fire in Haverhill's history.
That fire began on a cold February night. It left 75 wooden shoe factories along Washington and Wingate streets in ruins. Within one year, the downtown came back to life with the construction of mostly brick and stone buildings, such as the Finney building.
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Keeping the fire in check
* When the fire alarm sounded in the Finney building, it triggered an alarm in the police station alerting officers and firefighters of the fire.
* The building's sprinkler system suppressed the fire until firefighters arrived.
* Firefighters found the fire in a fourth-floor corner condo and extinguished it before it could spread to other condos.