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Bethlehem apartment fire dislocates 12 families

May 30, 2012
BETHLEHEM — About 70 firefighters battled a morning apartment fire on Main Street last Wednesday. Several units in the building were damaged. Although no one was injured, the fire claimed as many as nine cats.

The building is immediately east of Bethlehem Elementary, about one-third of a mile from the town hall. Kristyn Mueller, who lives nearby, said she was coming down a side road on her way to work before 7:30 a.m. She detected a smell, then said, "That's not just toast burning."

Bethlehem Police Chief Michael Ho-Sing-Loy was on the scene shortly after being notified of the fire. When he arrived, no alarm was heard, so Ho-Sing-Loy pulled the building's box alarm. He quickly started knocking on doors to get residents out.

Ho-Sing-Loy said that one door to access part of the building was locked. Fortunately, a resident soon arrived at the other side of the door to facilitate the evacuation of additional residents.

Traffic along Main Street was blocked east of Maple Street because of the blaze. Normal traffic flow was restored around midday.

Departments from across the North Country were called to assist. The four alarm fire was "very labor intensive" to put out, according to Bethlehem Fire Chief Jack Anderson. The blaze was seen spreading across the roof by 7:40 a.m.

Anderson praised the strong mutual aid assistance. This allows for frequent rotation of crews fighting the blaze. The "absolutely critical" assistance from other towns helped get the fire contained by 9:15 a.m, Anderson said.

James Hussey, a fireman who fought the blaze, used Facebook to thank the Bethlehem Auxiliary, which was on the scene with plenty of water and donuts for the tired crews. A shade tent helped resting crews avoid the sun when cloudy weather dissipated by late morning.

Tranzon Auction Properties originally scheduled to auction the property on May 31 at 11 a.m. Information from LoopNet.com noted that there are 19 units at the address, 2323 Main Street. The building includes more than 13,000 square feet.

Residents managed to maintain a grim sense of humor despite the fire. Because of the planned auction, a resident in the building's parking lot exclaimed, "Take down that auction sign and put up one that says fire sale!"

Resident Monica Hudson noted that her snake and 8-week-old black cat were safely in her car, thanks to a firefighter. Although she worried about her belongings, Hudson said, "We got out. I guess that's what is most important."

Former Bethlehem Police Chief Eric Lougee was part of the Red Cross team that arrived to assist affected residents. Three nights at Littleton's Eastgate Motor Inn were offered, as well as credit cards with a few hundred dollars.

Finding accommodations for those with pets could be difficult. One worried resident told the Red Cross, "There's a bunch of us in the building that have animals."

Matthew Wessels, a Profile student, resides in the building. He returned to the scene after hearing about the fire. He shared a warm embrace with his grandfather on the south side of Main Street after returning to the scene.

Mueller knew that a large number of people lived in the building. Concerned about the affected residents, she wondered, "How are they going to replace everything they're going to lose?"

Fire equipment on the scene arrived from as far as Lancaster and Easton. Littleton Ladder 1 helped firefighters make their way to the roof before and after the fire was contained. Grafton County Sheriff and State Fire Academy personnel were also on the scene.

Bethlehem Elementary Principal Kim Stoloski said that the fire did displace some students who reside in the building. Stoloski thanked the fire and police departments for keeping the school informed during the nearby blaze. Windows on the east side of the school were closed as a precaution. Smoke from the fire drifted away from the school.

Barbara Kunz, music teacher at the school, said that the fire caused little disruption of the school day. She noted that a dress rehearsal and Wednesday evening concert went on as planned.

On Thursday Anderson said that the fire began in a kitchen of the western-most apartment on the third floor. A stovetop appeared to activate accidentally. Anderson believes that the building can be salvaged.

After the fire was contained, residents praised Ho-Sing-Loy for his quick action. When the Chief entered the building, some residents did not know about the fire. At the end of the conversation with a few affected residents, one tenant spoke for many when he gave Ho-Sing-Loy a hearty "Thanks, Chief."

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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