By Keith Eddings
LAWRENCE - A stubborn fire badly damaged a three-story South Broadway building today, drawing mutual aid from six neighboring municipalities, blocking a major commuter artery during the evening rush and casting filthy, stinking clouds of soot and freezing mist over a southeast corner of the city on one of the season's coldest nights.
There were no known injuries by 6 p.m., although Fire Chief Jack Bergeron said the century-old red brick building at 125 South Broadway was too engulfed in flames for firefighters to make their way through much of it when they arrived at about 4:45 p.m.
"Whether there's anyone in there, I don’t' know,” Bergeron said. “We couldn't get into some rooms."
He said the cause is not known.
A man and a woman who lived in one of the 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.
The four-alarm fire was the second major blaze in Lawrence today, exhausting firefighting ranks that still are being rebuilt following layoffs two years ago. At about 10 this morning, 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.
The South Broadway building 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 and residential apartment took up the second floor, and another apartment took up the third.
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.
“Four pumps, two ladders, a rescue truck and everybody we got,” Lt. Dave Amero said about the city's response to the fire.
A stiff easterly wind made the 19-degree temperature 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.
"The biggest thing is trying to keep the guys warm," Bergeron said.
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.
Several blocks of the road were closed to allow firefighters to maneuver their equipment and run hoses from hydrants. Among the departments that sent mutual aide were Methuen, Andover, North Andover, Dracut, Tewksbury and Salem, N.H.