"Ever since I got on the department, I know this is what we dreaded. . . because of the kind of building this was," said Lowell Fire Chief Elmer Kender at the scene Sunday morning.
Firefighters were called to the two-story wooden structure at 12:40 a.m. Saturday by Lowell Police Officer Donald Dowling, who radioed in a report of the fire while on routine patrol. At the same time, said Lowell Police Officer David Wilson, who is in charge of the police investigation, an employee of Luigi's Pizza, a business located in an adjacent building of Washington St., reported the fire to police.
Kender said virtually the entire roster of 33 firefighters from the Lowell Vol. Fire Dept. was quickly on the scene, and immediate calls for assistance went out to the Lake Dalecarlia, Cedar Lake and Shelby Vol. Fire Depts., all of whom responded with pumper trucks to increase the supply of water available.
"We pre-plan our attack for every building in town," explained Kender. "For this one, we wanted to get a lot of water on it -- fast. We had trucks hooked up to hydrants across the street, up the street near the parking lot up to Commercial Ave., where we have a very good hydrant."
Kender said several water lines were hooked up to all available hydrants to allow firefighters to surround the wooden structure with hoses, and the pumper units from the three neighboring departments were assigned to hydrants at nearby locations. "They each pump 1,000 gallons of water a minute, so they were a big help," Kender added.
When firefighters arrived at the scene, added Kender, the fire had spread through the entire building, but [the] left rear corner of the structure was the most heavily involved, with flames already shooting through the roof and high into the air.
"This is probably the most difficult kind of structure to fight a fire in, because there were so many additions, creating three or four layers of ceiling in some places and numerous interior walls," Kender explained. "It's an extra hazard for firefighters because of the danger of collapsing ceilings, and there are some spots it is just impossible to reach."
One firefighter, Dan Reed, was temporarily buried by debris when the ceiling caved in near the main entrance to the collection of small shops. "He was about six feet inside the door, and we started pulling the debris off of him -- he pushed away the rest of it and got free," said Kender, who reported no serious injury to Reed.
Two other Lowell firefighters, Jack Eskridge and Jeff Harris, were treated for smoke inhalation at St. Anthony Medical Center and released Saturday added Kender.
Kender said firefighters were positioned on nearby roof tops to pour water into the building and try to contain the blaze. Adjacent shops along Washington St. were saved, although the attic of the Country Corner Beauty Salon next door to the main structure burned and was damaged by smoke.
Surrounding firefighters were dismissed at about 5:30 a.m. Saturday, noted Kender, while Lowell units were on the scene until about 10:30 a.m. "We had to return with one engine at about 6 p.m. when a spot rekindled, and I'm surprised there wasn't more of that, with all the smoldering debris and everything that's buried under there," Kender remarked.
An investigation into the cause of the fire began immediately on Saturday, and Kender revealed that the investigators are suspicious.
"There are some questions that can't be answered in terms of natural causes, and the investigation is continuing," he said. A rear storage area where the fire apparently started was swept clear to the floor, and samples of a variety of materials were secured for testing. Kender said the materials will be checked for burn patterns and any evidence of an accelerant.
Wilson, who is working with Asst. Fire Chief Dale Smith and Lt. Dwight Rench on the investigation, also admitted that arson is a possible cause of the fire.
He said Dowling took a statement from a customer at the Lowell Laundromat, directly across the street from The Livery Stable, reporting that someone was seen running from the area near the time the fire was reported. "The description was very general, but I am trying to talk to all of the shop owners to determine if anyone was in the vicinity, and if so, why," added Wilson. Also, there are reports that a door to the business may have been open.
Wilson said he has information to indicate there were seven tenants on the first floor of The Livery Stable, but Kender said he heard that one woman had intended to move in just a day or two prior to the fire, but was delayed. Loretta Zunica, owner of Lor-Jon Gifts in the mall, said she lost virtually everything in her shop, including dozens of collectibles.
"We didn't have anything priced at two to three dollars . . . everything was valuable," she said. "I had just received a new order of Hummels (expensive German figurines) and I had many things set aside on layaway for Christmas gifts." Zunica added that all her records were destroyed, as well as cabinets and furniture in the store.
"We were insured, but it won't cover all this," she said, gesturing to piles of broken ceramic gift items and china plates.
"Here is a $275 lamp," said Ed Zunica as he carried out a charred brass fixture missing its glass globe.
Loretta Zunica praised the work of the firefighters, saying she watched as they fought the blaze for hours Saturday. "There was just nothing they could do once the fire reached the entire building," she said.
Tom Hawkins, who was sifting through the rubble with his father, Jack Hawkins of Lake Dalecarlia, said his family also lost thousands of dollars worth of merchandise in their antique shop.
"We had one of those old-time phonographs which was worth a lot of money, and there were so many other things, too. My dad, he had two sets of 12 of the best crystal goblets, and they were worth $35 to $50 each," remarked Hawkins. "We are trying to get out anything we can save."
Bob Bridges, who bought The Livery Stable about 18 months ago, could not be reached for comment. He reportedly operated one of the shops in the building, which was near full occupancy as it was planned. Hawkins said the second floor, where his father's business had originally been located, was only used for storage at the time of the fire.
Rich Michaels of Michaels Ins. Agency in Lowell confirmed Monday morning The Livery Stable building was insured by Bridges for approximately $208,000, and said his office expects an insurance adjustor to be on the scene soon to conduct an investigation.
While the storefront shops along Washington St. were open daily, the interior antique shops were limited to Friday, Saturday and Sunday hours.
In the 1970's, the former site of a real livery stable and hay barn was a popular attraction for out-of-town antique shoppers who filled the building on weekends to browse for bargains.
There were a dozen or more shops and a restaurant within the building, and the antique businesses flourished as neighboring buildings in the downtown area joined The Livery Stable in promoting Lowell as an antiquing community.
Go to Fires -- 1985 -- old livery stable building, "Pioneer History Index," for further information on the history of The Livery Stable.
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