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Officials estimate over $1M in damage from Keene fire; building a total loss
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Just before 10 p.m. on Saturday, Natalia Chiume fired off a text, inviting someone to join her and her friends for drinks and fries at Cobblestone Alehouse in downtown Keene.

But within minutes, she and other patrons were fleeing across Main Street, then watching as flames engulfed the booths and tables where they had all just been sitting.

“It was absolutely insane,” she said Sunday afternoon.

The five-alarm fire at 151 Main St. rendered the entire building — which also includes other businesses and apartments — and its contents a total loss, according to a news release from the Keene Fire Department. Estimated damage exceeds $1 million.

Just after 10 p.m., the fire department received a report of a fryolator fire at Cobblestone, according to Fire Chief Mark Howard. It took about seven hours before the fire was under control.

Chiume, 25, of Marlborough, had just sat down after getting more ketchup and drinks, when she noticed smoke coming from the kitchen.

At first, none of the roughly 30 people in the bar and restaurant seemed sure what to do, she said.

“Every single one of us just kind of looks around, like, ‘What is this? What is going on?’ ”

Someone propped open the door to air out the space, and people started gathering their stuff to leave, Chiume said. When the fire alarm went off, they hastened their pace.

She and her friends stood outside Domino’s, adjacent to Cobblestone, thinking the fire wouldn’t be too serious — but they quickly realized it wasn’t safe to stick around.

At around the same time Chiume was leaving the restaurant, Donald Gauthier, of Keene, was at his grandmother’s apartment across the street. Standing outside, he could hear the fire alarms going off, and through Cobblestone’s windows, he saw what appeared to be a small fire blooming toward the back of the bar. In the time it took him to get his phone out and open the camera app, the fire had overwhelmed the restaurant.

“I saw it … go from a small fire to just that whole side of the building was up in flames within 30 seconds,” he said.

The first firefighters arrived at the scene at 10:07 p.m., the Keene Fire Department said in its news release Sunday.

As the first unit arrived, what had been called in as a first-alarm fire was immediately bumped up to a second alarm, according to the release. Ultimately, the fire was upgraded to a fifth alarm.

From the initial company that arrived, two firefighters suffered minor burns and were taken to Cheshire Medical Center, Chief Howard said Saturday night. The two first responders were both discharged within a couple of hours.

Three people were on the second floor at the time of the fire, according to Sunday’s news release.

Two of them were able to self-evacuate, but one woman became disoriented and could not find her way out of the building, prompting her to call 911, Howard said. Firefighters were able to knock enough of the fire down to enter and found her by using a thermal-imaging camera, Howard said. She was rescued from the building within 20 minutes of the fire’s start, according to Howard, and taken to Cheshire Medical Center to be treated for smoke inhalation.

Fire departments from Swanzey, Marlborough, Chesterfield, Jaffrey, Spofford, Peterborough, Walpole, as well as the Vermont communities of Brattleboro, Putney, Bellows Falls and Westminster, assisted at the scene, according to Sunday’s news release. Personnel from Southwestern N.H. District Fire Mutual Aid and DiLuzio Ambulance were also on-site to help.

The building is owned by George Levine of Wellesley, Mass., according to the release. Levine could not be reached for comment Sunday evening.

On Sunday morning, structural engineers and city officials were at the scene to assess the aftermath, Howard said, while the city’s public works department cleaned up the streets near the site. The fire department planned to keep a small crew there throughout the day to monitor for any rekindling.

For many locals and Keene State students — both former and present — Cobblestone was a beloved establishment.

“I’m from Keene, and I’ve been here for my whole life, so that was a crazy thing to watch happen,” Chiume said. “... [Cobblestone was] such a staple, and everybody likes it.”

An investigation into the fire was underway Sunday.

Anyone with information related to the incident is asked to contact Keene fire Capt. John Bates at 603-757-1863 or via email at jbates@keenenh.gov.

A GoFundMe campaign was launched Sunday morning to help Cobblestone staff. Donations can be made at https://gofund.me/5a601cff.

There are also GoFundMe campaigns for tenants who lived in the second-floor apartments. Those campaigns can be found at https://gofund.me/3706c39f and https://gofund.me/7eca1851.

This article has been updated with additional information.


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Swanzey to hold public hearings for bonds, including one to fund proposed fire station
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SWANZEY — The town is scheduled to hold public bond hearings Wednesday, including one for the proposed new fire station that has been shot down four times before.

The $2.8 million bond would help fund a new fire station at 321 Old Homestead Highway to replace Station 2, which is underneath the town offices.

The town has two other fire stations: Station 1 in East Swanzey and Station 3 in West Swanzey.

This is the fifth time since 2015 that Swanzey has included an article for a new fire station in the town-meeting warrant. It will require a three-fifths supermajority vote.

“The Board of Selectmen remains committed to getting a new fire station approved and getting Fire Station #2 out of the basement of Town Hall,” Town Administrator Michael Branley said in an email to The Sentinel. “The need for this modern, safe, and adequately sized station has not changed and I hope the community will support the project and move Swanzey forward.”

The hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Whitcomb Hall on Main Street. People can also participate in the meetings via Zoom by going to zoom.us, downloading the Zoom smartphone app, or by calling 1(929)205-6099 and entering Meeting ID 235 370 4380#. Anyone needing assistance with tuning in can contact Branley at 603-352-7411, extension 107, or by emailing mbranley@swanzeynh.gov.

According to the draft warrant, the total project cost is expected to be $3,575,000. In addition to the bond, $200,000 would be raised through taxes and $575,000 through the undesignated fund balance and grants.

Under the proposed plan, a section of the roughly 12,000-square-foot station would remain unfinished to reduce overall cost, according to Branley. It’s the same plan that was proposed last year, he said, before voters chose to amend the article at the deliberative session to increase the cost. That article failed at the polls in March after winning a simple majority but falling short of the required supermajority (625-495).

Wednesday’s hearing will be the latest in the saga that has spanned several years.

Station 2 was built in the 1960s, according to Fire Chief Bill Gould. With barely enough room to squeeze in today’s firetrucks, no space for on-site training, and code-compliance issues, the station fails to meet many of the requirements of a modern firehouse, he said.

Cross-contamination is also a problem at Station 2 (as well as at the other two stations), where there isn’t a distinct and separate place to clean and dry gear, Gould said, which can have long-term health effects for firefighters.

“Today we come back from a call, everything just gets piled into one area,” Gould said. “... So that’s what we’re trying to eliminate in the future. When they talk about cancer in the fire service, that’s the very root of where it begins.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters. (January is Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month.)

“Hopefully it gets passed,” Gould said of the proposed $2.8 million bond.

Two other bonds will also be up for discussion at Wednesday’s public hearings, including one for the Upper Wilson Pond Dam Project and another to stabilize Webber Hill Road.

A public hearing about the town’s 2022 proposed operating budget and warrant articles will follow the bond hearings.


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Data suggests most health care workers in the state have agreed to be vaccinated

Attorney General John Formella has signed onto three national lawsuits challenging federal vaccine mandates that warn “millions” of resignations would follow if employees were forced to choose between their job and a COVID-19 vaccine.

Gov. Chris Sununu predicted the same in supporting Formella’s decision.

“We have heard from long-term care facilities that are at risk of shutting down if this mandate goes through,” he said in November of the lawsuit challenging the mandate for health-care workers. “This lawsuit can help stop another overreaching mandate in its tracks, avoiding a catastrophic workforce and care crisis for some of our state’s most vulnerable residents.”

By one indicator, that has not proven true.

As of September, when President Joe Biden announced the mandates, 109 people have filed for state unemployment over a workplace vaccine mandate, according to Rich Lavers, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Employment Security. Of those, 70 worked in health care, an industry that reported about 91,600 workers in June, the most recent count available.

Most of those unemployment claims from health-care workers — 64 — were denied after the department concluded their employers’ mandate was reasonable based on a history of state Supreme Court rulings addressing workplace requirements, Lavers said.

Lavers cautioned, however, that the 109 unemployment claims likely do not reflect the total number of people who’ve left their jobs over a vaccine requirement because those who left the workforce altogether or quit and took other jobs are not eligible for unemployment.

But hospitals and long-term care facilities believe another metric bolsters their argument that most health care workers have agreed to be vaccinated: their employee vaccination rates. Many have adopted their own vaccine mandates while the federal mandate is on hold pending the court challenge.

The New Hampshire Hospital Association, which represents 30 hospitals in New Hampshire, said 90 percent of New Hampshire hospital employees are vaccinated. And the New Hampshire Healthcare Association — which represents state private nursing homes, including the two biggest, one county nursing home, and a facility that cares for children with disabilities — reported approximately the same percentage of its workers are vaccinated.

Hospitals and long-term care facilities represent about 77,000 of the nearly 91,600 health care workers in New Hampshire, according to Department of Employment Security data.

“We’re pleased that the vast majority of hospital staff throughout the state are vaccinated and compliant with the policies set by their individual hospitals, as it is a clear demonstration of their belief that it is critically important to protect the health and safety of New Hampshire’s most vulnerable patients,” said Steve Ahnen, president and CEO of the hospital association.

“Obviously you’d like to be at 100 percent,” said Brendan Williams, president and CEO of the nursing home association. Every resignation — over mandates or the overwhelming burden of the work — hurts, he said.

“What I’ve heard said is that any amount of staff loss is pretty debilitating for facilities right now,” he said. “But with that said, many facilities have been willing to incur that because they felt it would be in the best interest of the residents. But I’m not knocking those who’ve imposed a mandate because in certain areas of the state where there is a lot of vaccine resistance, any job loss can be very damaging for residents.”

Sununu spokesman Brandon Pratt said in an email Friday that the governor’s concern about long-term care facilities closing if vaccines were mandated came directly from those facilities. Like Williams, Sununu said in a statement the state could not afford any health care worker to resign. Earlier Friday, Sununu announced a 17-member medical team from the federal Department of Defense had arrived at Elliot Hospital to help as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to overwhelm staff. More than 500 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19 Friday, 359 with an active infection and 140 recovering from COVID-19 and too sick to be discharged.

“As hospitalizations remain high in New Hampshire and around the country, any loss of health care workers places an additional strain on the system,” he said. “To deny that the loss of 70 health care workers could not have a significant and dangerous effect ignores the potential impact on smaller, rural health care settings.”


Local
Redistricting in NH
Redistricting listening sessions did little to influence House-approved maps

The New Hampshire House last week approved the Republican-backed plans for redistricting the congressional, House of Representatives, and county commissioner districts.

Nonpartisan watchdog groups have decried the congressional maps for gerrymandering: making the 1st Congressional District more friendly to Republicans and the 2nd District more firmly Democratic. And criticism has also been leveled at the new House districts as approved, after citizens urged lawmakers to abide by the New Hampshire Constitution’s requirement that each town with sufficient population, or 3,444 residents, be given its own district. Fifty-six eligible towns didn’t get one in the maps passed by the House last week. House Republicans have defended their maps, saying they meet all constitutional requirements.

The congressional district map would move Republican strongholds in the south of the state into the 1st District, while Seacoast cities like Durham, Dover, and Portsmouth would become part of the 2nd District.

At a series of listening sessions held across the state in the fall, citizens asked lawmakers to ensure the process was fair and transparent. They urged lawmakers to create maps that were free of gerrymandering (maps that give partisan advantage to one party over another). These maps are problematic, Granite Staters told lawmakers repeatedly, because they allow politicians to choose their voters rather than the other way around.

“The districts you are drawing are not your districts, they’re our districts,” Paul Phillips of Plymouth told the redistricting committees during a listening session in Grafton County.

“Make sure there’s not even the slightest suspicion of any gerrymandering,” said Steven Borne of Rye at the Rockingham session.

“My town is required to have its own representative district, which we have been robbed of for the past decade,” Gail Kinney of Canaan told lawmakers at a Grafton County listening session. In 2006, a provision was added to the New Hampshire Constitution to give each eligible town a dedicated representative; in spite of that requirement, 72 eligible towns did not receive one when redistricting happened 10 years ago.

The Republican-backed maps passed the House on Wednesday with only a small margin, and did not win the support of all House Republicans. Rep. Dan Wolf, a Merrimack Republican, voted against the majority congressional map he saw as overly partisan. “When somebody stands up and makes a statement guaranteeing this district to be a Republican district, now I can’t support that,” he said in an interview after the vote. “I like competitive districts.”

The congressional maps passed in a 186-164 vote, but only after a motion to table the bill was narrowly defeated; Speaker of the House Sherman Packard cast the deciding vote, resulting in a 179-179 tie and thus blocking the motion.

Votes on House districts were nearly as close. After barely overcoming another tabling motion (177-178), lawmakers passed the Republican proposal, 186-168.

Stewartstown Republican Rep. Dennis Thompson voiced concern about how the proposed House districts would affect Coos County. He voted against the majority plan, which he said would not be in the interest of his constituents. It would create a sprawling, cumbersome district where it would be harder for North Country residents to make their voices heard in Concord, Thompson said in an interview.

He and other North Country residents have spoken about the disconnect between that part of the state and the state government that’s meant to represent it.

“I ran for the office to service a constituency that I thought had been poorly serviced in the past,” he said. Thompson said he doesn’t believe the majority plan would help to improve that status quo, but would actually make it worse.

Citizens in the North Country had echoed these concerns during listening sessions. But independent onlookers like Olivia Zink, executive director at the Open Democracy Action, said that while holding listening sessions was a step in the right direction, most of the input provided to lawmakers didn’t end up in the bills the House passed last week.

“When you look at the process, yes there were things they did this year that they didn’t do 10 years ago, like allow for a public hearing. But did they take any of the public’s input into the final consideration? No,” she said.

The House maps will go before the Senate, where further amendments can be introduced.

And on Monday, Jan. 10, the Senate will hold a hearing to take public input on the maps they have drafted for Senate and Executive Council districts. The hearing will begin at 1 p.m. in Representatives Hall and is scheduled to last three hours.


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