LAWRENCE — A Brookfield Street block terrorized by the Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster suffered another blow Friday when a house that has been boarded up since that day caught fire a second time and burned almost to the ground.

Officials said they suspect the fire was deliberately set by a group of teenagers who neighbors reported seeing breaking into the house earlier Friday afternoon.

Three adjoining houses also were damaged as strong winds whipped the flames and rained embers and soot on the South Lawrence neighborhood of two- and three-family homes a block west of Broadway.

Residents of the three damaged houses – at 15 and 25 Brookfield St. on either side of the building that was destroyed, and at 24 Brookfield St. across the street — were offered alternative housing by the Red Cross. The shingles and siding pealed from the roof and sides of the houses at 15 and 25 Brookfield, but the house across the street caught fire and was heavily damaged. 

The three-story duplex at 21 and 23 Brookfield St., where the fire began, has been unoccupied since it first burned on Sept. 13, 2018 and on Friday the second fire finished off what didn't burn last fall. After burning out of control for more than an hour while getting pounded by heavy streams of water from as many as six high-powered hoses, the three-story building was reduced to a teetering two-story frame surrounding the collapsed floors inside.

No residents or firefighters were injured. However neighbors still anxious after the gas disaster were rattled again as rumors spread that the fire was caused by a gas leak similar to the one that randomly set fire to dozens of homes in South Lawrence and the Andovers last summer.

Deputy fire Chief Kevin Loughlin doused the rumors, noting that both gas and electricity were shut off seven months ago to the house where Friday's fire started. He could not say for sure that the fire was deliberately set, but noted that arson is the most likely cause in empty buildings that have no gas or electric service.

“Anytime you have (a building with) no utilities and it's boarded up, it's assumed to be arson,” Loughlin said.

Lawrence Police Chief Roy Vasque said cruisers were dispatched to the house less than an hour before the fire, when neighbors reported seeing several youths enter through a window where the plywood that covered it since Sept. 13 had been pealed away.

“We swept the building. Nobody was inside,” Vasque said. “We're now investigating reports that after we left, somebody may have returned and then the fire started.”

Columbia Gas crews were on the block — between Bowdoin and Chester streets — shutting off the gas to adjoining homes, which is routine during fires.

“The fact that this happened in a neighborhood already affected by the gas disaster, it's a second blow,” said Mayor Daniel Rivera, who arrived on the block shortly after the fire was reported about 3:30 p.m. “We'll do what we always do – make sure people are housed and that firefighters have what they need.”

At 5:30 p.m., shortly after the fire was extinguished, Rivera posted this reassurance on his Facebook page: “The Brookfield Street fire is NOT gas related.”

City tax records show the house that was destroyed is owned by Raymond Maynard. Neighbors said he died in November 2017 and that the house is owned by a bank that foreclosed on it. The house was assessed at $206,900.

“This should have been torn down” after the first fire on Sept. 13, said Paul Tessier, an engineer at Lowell General Hospital who owns the adjoining house at 15 Brookfield St., where siding melted off the side his house. “It's been left sitting there to rot. Nothing's been done about it. Who do you hold responsible – Columbia Gas or the bank that owns it?”

Another neighbor, Joe Melo, said he saw a group of youths he estimated to be about 15 years old enter the house before the fire. Just after the police responded and left, Melo's wife, Pat, said she saw fire through a second story window and called 911.

“As soon as they left, the house started smoking,” Pat Melo said.

Loughlin said a pumper truck that was the first to arrive emptied its 750 gallons before firefighters could run hoses to hydrants as far as 300 feet away, including on Broadway.

“It was probably just 90 seconds,” Loughlin said about the time the pumper went dry and the hoses were connected to hydrants. “But it seems like it's longer when you have a fire burning out of control and you're without water.”

Once connected, as many as six hoses at a time poured water onto 21-23 Brookfield St. and the surrounding houses, including from a so-called snorkel platform that lifted two firefighters well above the building and from another hose atop a ladder that was controlled remotely from the ground.

Seven departments from outside Lawrence responded, including from both Andovers, Haverhill, Methuen, Lowell and Dracut.

The wind was strong enough that the spray from the fire hoses dripped down on pedestrians more than a block from the fire, mixed with a choking, eye-stinging smoke. Nevertheless, hundreds of neighbors crowded behind police lines and on their porches to watch the spectacular blaze, many dusted with soot.

One was an elderly man who lives at 24 Brookfield St., which was heavily damaged when embers set it on fire. Firefighters ran a hose through the front door up to the second floor, knocked out the windows and chopped away the eves under the roof. From the street, birthday balloons could be seen bobbing inside the first floor. 

Outside, the owner directed firefighters about where on the second floor they would find his two cats, but said he was worried they would run from them. He declined to give his name.

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