By Mark E. Vogler and Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — The wind and chilling cold temperatures in the mid teens teamed up to cover firefighters with a freezing mist early last night, hampering their efforts to battle a four-alarm blaze that caused extensive damage to a three-story brick building at 125 S. Broadway.
“We’re holding mutual aid companies for now, until we get our apparatus thawed out and the guys thawed out too,” Lawrence Fire Chief Jack Bergeron said in an interview last night after city units had returned to the Central Fire Station.
“The cold weather and the wind made it very difficult to work out there tonight. It was very smoky and the wind kept all that smoke at ground level — and the mist, from all that water that we were applying. We all got covered with ice,” Bergeron said.
A stiff easterly 15 mph wind made the mid-teen temperatures feel even colder and blew a heavy mist back on firefighters, who were pouring about 2,000 gallons a minute from four hoses, including one from the elbowed arm of a snorkel truck about 15 feet above the building.
The mist froze as it hit South Broadway, creating a sheen of ice. Fighting the cold as well as the fire, several firefighters wore weaved masks under their helmets and over their faces, exposing only their eyes. Many wore outfits crusted with ice.
Kingston Street resembled an ice rink as water gushing out the side of the building froze on the road surface.
“With all the ice we had out there, we had to be concerned that people might be flipping (on the ice) or getting frostbite or hypothermia,” Chief Bergeron said.
Bergeron said there were no known injuries from the fire that broke out shortly before 5 p.m. A dozen fire departments from the region responded. Fire units from Salem, N.H., Methuen, Middleton, North Andover, Haverhill, Tewksbury, Andover and North Reading helped city firefighters battle the blaze while the Dracut, Reading, Danvers and Wilmington Fire Departments provided back-up coverage for the rest of the city.
The cause of the fire had not been determined last night. Fire investigators were set to sift through the heavily-damaged, century-old building at the intersection of South Broadway and Kingston Street early today. Chief Bergeron estimated the fire damage to be “at least $250,000.”
The fire damage was confined to the third floor and the roof, with water damage throughout the rest of the building.
The first alarm sounded at 4:43 p.m. and quickly escalated to a second at 4:46 p.m. and a third at 4:53 p.m. A fourth was sounded about a half hour later.
Lawrence Auxiliary Police Chief Jay Jackson and his force of 21 volunteers had to block off South Broadway at both ends at several intersections, virtually closing a major commuter artery during the evening rush hour, as the fire cast filthy, stinking clouds of soot and freezing mist over a southeast corner of the city on one of the season’s coldest nights.
A man and a woman who lived in one of the two, third-floor apartments watched the fire from across South Broadway beside the steps of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, where they huddled in each other’s arms and monitored their pet rabbit, Midnight, in a cage at their feet. Both declined to be interviewed.
“They said they had heard some crackling up in the ceiling, that’s what alerted them to the fire,” Chief Bergeron said. Two residents who lived in the other apartment were at work at the time of the fire, he said.
The four-alarm fire was the second major blaze in Lawrence yesterday, exhausting firefighting ranks that still are being rebuilt following layoffs two years ago. At about 10 a.m., a two-alarm fire burned through 124 Weare St., also located off South Broadway near the Andover Line. One firefighter suffered minor injuries in that blaze. Local firefighters also battled a four-alarm fire in Lowell at 34 Boisvert St. yesterday afternoon.
The South Broadway building that caught fire yesterday included a street-level bike shop, called Wheels n’ Reels, and a beauty salon, both of which have been closed for at least several months. A dance studio took up the second floor.
The city’s on-line property assessment software was not working last night so the owner of the building could not be identified. Jim Lemieux, who owns a floral shop next door, said a Methuen man bought the building six months ago, but could not name him.
The fire surged back several times through the evening even as it appeared under control. It broke through the roof at about 5:30 p.m., a half hour after firefighters arrived, casting a glow through the smoke and onto the street. At about 6:15, departments that had been sent home were called back.
Volunteers from the American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts provided hotel stay for two people who were displaced by the fire. They were also provided emergency funds for food, clothing, shoes and seasonal garments, according to Red Cross communications manager Ashley Studley.
Reporter Jill Harmacinski contributed to this report.