BRATTLEBORO -- It took more than 60 firefighters from 12 different towns nearly 12 hours to fully extinguish a fire on Elliot Street Wednesday that left 17 people and their pets homeless.
"They were fantastic," said Bob Remy-Powers, the building's owner, about the response to the fire. "It was great to see such a wonderfully coordinated team effort."
Remy-Powers, who was checking on the building Thursday morning after getting only one hour of sleep, said six of the seven apartments in the building at 214 Elliot Street were rented out, but not all of the occupants were there when the fire started.
Fortunately, he said, all 17 occupants, including three children and their pets, have been accounted for and are unharmed. They are currently receiving assistance from the Vermont & New Hampshire Upper Valley American Red Cross.
Remy-Powers said he has already been in touch with other landlords in the area to help his tenants find replacement housing.
"My tenants are my extended family," he said.
The cause of the fire that swept through the Erwin Building, which is named after Remy-Powers' father, Erwin Stratton Power, has not yet been determined, said Brattleboro Fire Chief Michael Bucossi.
He credited the first six responders, under the leadership of Capt. Billy Johnson, from the Brattleboro Central Station, just a few hundred yards from the scene of the fire, with preventing the blaze from burning the building to the ground or spreading to other nearby buildings.
"They initiated a very aggressive initial attack under some very bad conditions," said Bucossi.
When they first arrived at 4:49 p.m., three minutes after the fire was called in, there was heavy smoke coming from a third floor apartment at the back of the building. The firefighters stretched four handlines to the second and third floors and began spraying down the flames, said Bucossi.
"They knocked down a tremendous amount of fire," he said.
But little did they know at the time, the fire was spreading rapidly between the building's old roof and a metal-shingled pitched roof that had been erected over the old roof a few years ago.
"The fire at the back porch was moving over their heads toward the Elliot Street side of the building," said Bucossi. "We had to pull them out of the building. The fire was way beyond what the six of them could handle, but they truly made a tremendous effort."
A second alarm was struck when the first engine arrived and a third alarm was struck at 5:02 p.m.
Firefighters from Putney, Westminster and Wilmington, Chesterfield, Spofford, Swanzey and Keene, N.H., and Northfield and Greenfield, Mass., assisted on the scene. Firefighters from Bellows Falls and Guilford, Chesterfield, N.H., and Bernardston, Mass., covered the Brattleboro stations while the fire was being battled.
In addition, Rescue Inc., the Brattleboro Police Department, the Brattleboro Department of Public Works, Green Mountain Power and the Red Cross assisted at the scene.
The response from the assisting agencies was coordinated by Fire Mutual Aid, in Keene.
"It's such an asset to have such capable fire departments coming into our town to help when we need it," said Bucossi, who was running on no sleep at 10 a.m. Thursday. "There was a very large volume of fire in a large building with a lot of life-hazard potential."
Three firefighters were transported to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital for treatment of minor injuries, said Bucossi.
At one point, said Bucossi, there was a concern that the entire building might collapse, but on Thursday morning the building still stood, though water continued to drip throughout the structure and the smell of wood smoke lingered throughout the area.
Though Remy-Powers said he has come to no conclusion on whether the building is salvageable, when Bucossi was asked he responded "I would say no."
Bucossi said there was also a serious concern that due to the intensity of the blaze it might spread to nearby wood-frame houses.
Steve Jones, the owner of 210 Elliot Street, said overspray from hoses damaged slate tiles on the roof of his building, causing water damage to two of his apartments.
"Those two bedrooms are definitely trashed," he said.
On Thursday morning, a fire-reclamation specialist was helping Jones to vacuum out water that had pooled in the building.
Though one of the tenants said there was water damage to some of his belongings and it looked like the ceiling in his apartment might need to be replaced, he was thankful for the response from the firefighters.
"Those guys did an awesome job," he said.
Bucossi said runoff from the fire fighting effort also flooded some basements of homes on Frost Street. He thanked the Brattleboro Department of Public Works for assisting the homeowners with the damage. At the peak of the fire fighting, the fire trucks were pulling 4,000 gallons a minute from the hydrants, he said.
Bucossi also credited Remy-Powers for the installation of smoke detectors throughout the building.
"This is another example of smoke detectors saving lives," said Bucossi.
The initial relief effort is being handled by the Vermont & New Hampshire Upper Valley American Red Cross. Six Red Cross disaster services workers responded and met with the six families to ensure that the 17 displaced residents had a place to stay on Wednesday night. Temporary lodging has been arranged for the 17 at an area motel for the next three nights. In addition to the temporary lodging, the affected families are being provided financial assistance to help with food and clothing.
The volunteers and local staff also helped support the first responders on scene, providing dinner and hydration.
All emergency assistance offered by the Red Cross is provided without charge. To enable the Red Cross to provide this assistance, and to support the training and tools required to respond, the Vermont & the New Hampshire Upper Valley American Red Cross relies upon donations made by members of the community.
As of Thursday morning, the Red Cross had already expended more than $5,000 to help those affected. To help people affected by fires as well as natural disasters, a donation can be made to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief.
Visit www.redcross.org, call 802-660-9130, ext. 111, text REDCROSS to 90999, or mail a contribution to American Red Cross, 29 Mansfield Avenue, Burlington, VT 05401.
On Thursday afternoon, the Red Cross convened a meeting of aid organizations to determine the next step in assisting those displaced by the fire.
The organizations included Vermont Economic Services, Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing, Windsor/Windham Housing Trust, United Way, Brattleboro Area Drop In Center and Brattleboro Housing Authority.
Around the community, people rallied to help those left homeless and without belongings.
The customers of Whippersnappers, a child clothing reseller at 642 Putney Road, had donated $300 worth of store credit for the children, said Tom Nelson, owner.
And Love It Twice, a consignment and resale shop at 74 Black Mountain Road, is accepting clothing donations.
Sizes needed include boys 2 to 3, girls 6 to 7 and women's 14 to 18. Donations should be washed and labeled for the fire victims.
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.