When the fire alarms in the hallway to the apartments above Cobblestone Ale House in Keene started blaring last Saturday night, Josef Meighy and Cheryl Warren had little time to think.
Their second-story apartment directly above the Main Street bar filled quickly with smoke. As they fled into the frigid January night, Meighy, 55, wore two hoodies, shorts and sneakers without socks. Warren, 63, grabbed her cane and a jacket, and exited the building wearing sweatpants and slippers.
The couple left behind almost everything else — including their two-year-old cat, Sanja, who was nowhere to be found.
“It seemed like it only took a second for all this to happen,” Warren said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Right after we got out of there the windows blew out and the fire came out onto the sidewalk and our apartment just went up in flames. So, if we had stayed in there we would have been burnt up with the cat.”
No one died or was seriously injured in the five-alarm fire that destroyed homes and businesses in the center of downtown, but it still left many victims in its wake.
Meighy and Warren are among the more than eight tenants displaced by the fire at 151 Main St. — which rendered the building and its contents a total loss — who are receiving assistance from a Red Cross disaster action team.
The team has helped the fire victims with immediate needs, including shelter, food, replacing prescription medicines and filing insurance claims, said Jennifer Costa, the communications director for the Red Cross Northern New England Region.
”We lost everything,” Meighy said, describing a sense of despair and sadness, especially for the loss of their cat. “We’re upset mentally, anguishing over losing our possessions, but I’d rather be alive.”
From a cab in the parking lot of Cumberland Farms, Meighy and Warren watched for hours as firefighters battled flames that ripped through their home, where they had lived since last May.
The fire was traumatizing, Warren said. Photo albums with baby pictures of her now-adult children as well as furniture and clothing were consumed by the flames.
While money from the Red Cross helped the couple find shelter at a hotel for a few days, their path forward remains unclear. They said they plan to stay with family in the short-term but are worried about finding a new apartment near Keene.
Jennifer Hunt, another tenant of the building, was asleep at her parents’ home in Sanbornton at the time of the fire. She awoke in the middle of the night to dozens of missed messages and phone calls from concerned friends and coworkers.
The fire destroyed the apartment where Hunt and her daughter, Aries, had lived for two years. Their cat — named Twilight, after Aries’ favorite book and film series — is thought to have died in the fire.
Hunt said her daughter, who is 18 and a senior at Keene High School, has Down syndrome and has had a hard time understanding the situation. Her daughter’s collection of baby photos and more than 300 movies were lost in the fire.
“We’re holding up,” Hunt said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I’m trying to stay strong for my daughter.”
Hunt, who works in food services at the Keene School District, returned to the scene of the fire on Monday, after dropping her daughter off at school. She said she plans to stay with her parents but hopes to get back on her feet in the Keene area sometime soon, so Aries can continue to attend Keene High.
“Thankfully I was not there that night,” Hunt said. “My heart goes out to all my neighbors that were there; I’m glad everyone got out safely.”
Other than Meighy and Warren, there was only one other person on the second floor the night of the fire. The woman became disoriented by the smoke as she attempted to escape the building, according to Keene Fire Chief Mark F. Howard.
The woman was on the phone with a 911 operator, who tried to keep her calm and gathered information about where she was to relay to the fire department, Howard said. When a firefighter came to the rescue, the smoke was so thick that he couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face and had to use a thermal imaging camera to find her in the hallway, the chief said. The firefighter tried to help her walk but ended up carrying her from the building.
The woman was taken to Cheshire Medical Center to be treated for smoke inhalation and has been released, according to Howard.
A multi-day response
Just minutes after 10 p.m., three 911 calls reporting the fire came in quick succession, Howard said. One of the calls came from the bar to report that the fryolator had caught fire, another came from the fire alarm company and the third came from the woman trapped upstairs.
The first firefighting units arrived at the scene at 10:07 p.m., Howard said. Firefighters battled flames for hours, and the fire was not declared under control until just before 6 a.m.
“There were several tense minutes trying to conduct searches, and there were several areas we were not able to fully search,” the chief said.
Within the first 20 minutes of the incident, a lieutenant who was conducting searches called a mayday after becoming disoriented, according to Howard. The lieutenant was found within two minutes but was low on oxygen, he said.
Two of the firefighters who initially entered Cobblestone to search the building were also treated for first-degree burns on their legs but returned to work later the same night, the fire chief said. The burns potentially came from oils from the fryolator, he said.
A video posted to Facebook by the Keene Firefighters Union, IAFF Local 3265, Tuesday showed patrons at Cobblestone standing around or sitting as the bar filled with smoke. The firefighters’ union used the video to make a public service announcement about fire safety.
“Please if you see these conditions or hear smoke alarms please evacuate the building,” the union said. “If this was a busy night, it could have been a lot worse.”
Howard said the fire took hours to fight because the fire department could not put water on parts of the fire until the fire broke through the roof. As the fire raged, compromising the integrity of the building, collapse zones were set up and personnel were rotated in and out of a rehab area with heat and warm drinks, he said.
With the cold overnight temperatures, much of the firefighting gear froze as the firefighters worked, Howard said. The chief said he began releasing mutual aid companies around 3 or 4 a.m. Sunday but did not declare the fire under control for several more hours, until about 6 a.m. Fire watch remained until 8 a.m. Monday morning to monitor for rekindling or flare ups, he said.
The owner of the building, George Levine, did not return phone or email requests for comment.
The owner of Cobblestone, Rebecca Bezio, was not reachable for comment.
The fire remains under investigation by the Keene Fire Department.
All conversations with Bill Gnade ended with that salutation, two simple words strung together that packed a punch. It was his signature sign-off, the ultimate sign of respect, an acknowledgement that he had really enjoyed the companionship and conversation. Time spent with Gnade was never mundane, not with his philosophical depth. There’s even a framed “stay awesome” sign in his bedroom. He was a people person personified.
“Even stopping at the Hancock [Market] — he’d run in for something quick and he’s in there for an hour because he knows so many people. Or maybe it was someone he just met. It didn’t matter; he’d talk to anybody,” says his wife, Jane, a retired educator in the ConVal School District.
A longtime photojournalist at The Sentinel before stepping down several years ago, Gnade, 60, of Hancock, died last week after being diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a form of liver cancer, in August 2019.
But it was how he lived that family, friends and colleagues remember, his gregarious personality, deep spirituality, passion in throwing himself into all endeavors he attempted — he earned his EMT certification at age 58 — even his temper, which flashed if he believed he was being wronged.
“He was hard on himself. He was a perfectionist, and he didn’t like doing anything halfway,” Jane says.
Colleagues at The Sentinel remember him the same way. Just about everyone who worked with him has Gnade stories, from the editors who admired his talent, dedication and doggedness, to the young reporters he mentored. You never knew what may happen on a road trip with Gnade. You might find him challenging three guards who were armed with automatic weapons in the middle of the western Massachusetts woods of a long-closed nuclear power plant because they refused to be cordial. It happened.
“He was one of my closest friends,” says Michael Moore, The Sentinel’s chief photographer for more than 35 years before retiring in 2020. “We would talk for hours on the phone. We skied, hiked, kayaked, tried microbrews together. Everything he did he tried to do well.”
Moore says Gnade’s fervor to always improve made him an extraordinary photojournalist. He won numerous awards, including the prestigious N.H. Photographer of the Year for daily newspapers. Prior to joining The Sentinel, he was a writer and photographer at the Monadnock Ledger.
“The beauty of photojournalism is you have to be good at everything, and he was,” Moore says.
Former Sentinel Executive Editor Paul Miller remembers Gnade spending several months, possibly more than a year, photographing contra dancing in Nelson, and he took hundreds of black and white images. Miller was so impressed that he wanted to run a two-page pictorial in the paper, but Gnade wasn’t satisfied and didn’t want it published.
He was always seeking a better angle. Looking for a feature photo at a playground basketball court, he climbed to the top of the backboard at Adams Park in Peterborough just to get the right shot when he worked for the Monadnock Ledger.
“He’d go out for a feature photo and he’d come back with this story about a person he met. The connection he could make in just five minutes was really impressive to me,” Jane says.
In 2014, Gnade photographed the funeral of Marine Cpl. Brandon Garabrant, a 19-year-old ConVal graduate, who was killed while serving as a combat engineer in Afghanistan. Jane says it was more than an assignment; it affected him profoundly forever.
One year at the Cheshire Fair, he spent the first day photographing an elderly carnival worker. The one-time shoot drew him back to the fair every day during that run. “He spent days just taking portraits,” Jane says. “The set of portraits he took I thought were extraordinary. He drew out their humanity, and I thought they were incredible. … He wasn’t just a photographer who stands back and takes the shot; he would get right into it and tell you a story from his photos.”
A devout Christian, his spirituality was the epicenter of his life and the driver behind his ability to connect with people, Jane says. “That really affected every decision he made,” she says. “Being a Christian was why he was so good at friendships — people meant a lot to him.”
Miller says Gnade was always interested in “you” — and “you” was the person he was talking to at the time. You had his undivided attention. It made him not a good listener but a great listener, Miller says.
“He was, plain and simple, fun to be around. Always upbeat, always smiling. His manner and easy-going way made you smile. When you were at the table with him, over food and drink, you did not want to leave.”
His moniker at The Sentinel evolved into “El Grande” (pronounced grand-ay) after weekend editor Susie Reing once wrote “Bill Grande” as his photo credit one night in a deadline haste. Jane chuckles that its usage even stuck around the house because it seemed so appropriate. Reing, who is retired, says she revered working with El Grande.
“He was also a brilliant conversationalist and gave you is complete attention when he was talking with you, and you never knew where the conversation would end up, because he was such a Renaissance man,” Reing says. “He really cared about his work and would give copious instruction on how not to screw up his work by running various Photoshop actions. I could easily have fallen in love with him, he was that great.”
Photography was one of many passions Gnade pursued. When he decided to leave The Sentinel, his passion for photography waned to more of a hobby, his wife says, and the few freelance assignments he accepted centered around creating images that reflected the life and soul of a person.
Rather, he wanted to give back to his community and it prompted him to earn his EMT certification. He was “always good at medical stuff,” Jane says, and his determination to succeed alongside candidates half his age was “very impressive to me,” she says.
One of his favorite pastimes was playing golf with his 31-year-old son Nathan (whose mother is from an earlier marriage). He and Nathan were close and golf was just one of many activities they shared. Gnade took the game up about 20 years ago when their family needed more members to round out a golf trip. The sport is notorious for evoking frustration, but it had the opposite effect on Gnade. It helped soothe his temper and taught him patience. “He just loved it. He realized you’re not going to be perfect when you play golf,” Jane says.
He was an avid outdoorsman, encompassing almost all things New Hampshire such as hiking, fishing, kayaking and skiing; he was a former instructor at Crotched Mountain.
He was once a lay eucharistic minister, lector, choir member and junior warden at All Saints Church in Peterborough. He and Jane attended several churches and had recently found their calling at Hope Fellowship Church in Jaffrey.
Gnade was born in Pompton Plains, N.J., moved to the area as a young boy, graduated from ConVal in 1979 and put down his roots in Hancock. He double majored at Gordon College in, not surprisingly, theology and philosophy. He and Jane met in 1993 when he was a substitute teacher at Great Brook in Antrim and she was a 5th-grade teacher.
“We hit it off,” she says.
Gnade was renting a cabin up the road near Jane’s home. “He stopped one night, and that’s all she wrote,” she says.
Shortly before being diagnosed with cancer, Gnade was lead editor of “Our Lanky Yankee,” a collection of memoirs and essays about longtime Hancock resident and environmentalist Neal Clark, published by the Hancock Historical Society. “He loved Hancock and always wanted to give back,” Jane says.
His 2½-year bout with liver cancer, which often doesn’t present symptoms until it’s in advanced stages, included many ups and downs. “He lived longer than we thought, so I’m grateful for that,” she says. “And he went fast at the end.”
She especially remembers is his upbeat attitude despite many rounds of chemotherapy. “He was going in for chemo, and he was telling everyone there to stay awesome.”
That was Bill. Stay awesome.
As local colleges prepare to welcome students back to campus after winter break, the institutions are delaying in-person instruction at the start of spring semester.
Keene State College and Franklin Pierce University in Rindge plan to begin classes as scheduled — Jan. 18 and 19, respectively — but students will be attending classes virtually for the first week of the semester.
Keene State students will return to campus in phases between Jan. 15 and Jan. 18, according to a campus-wide message sent out Friday.
But while students will be back on campus next week, the first week of classes will be streamed synchronously online, meaning students will attend classes at the time they are scheduled, but will tune in from their residences. This is meant to mitigate disruption for those who have to quarantine or isolate in the first week.
Keene State also took time over winter break to clean out air-filter and ventilation systems on campus, President Melinda Treadwell told The Sentinel on Friday, and will increase availability for symptomatic testing by expanding the testing site’s hours.
The college will continue its surveillance testing, according to the announcement, and will require everyone to wear well-fitted masks while indoors.
Like Keene, Franklin Pierce will begin the semester with online classes, with in-person instruction scheduled to resume Jan. 26, according to Communications Coordinator Kathryn Grosso Gann.
Students can begin moving in Jan. 18, she said, and they will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test before arriving. By delaying the start of in-person instruction, students will have additional time to receive their test results.
FPU students will need to have a negative COVID-19 test administered no more than five days before arriving and self-isolate in the time between, according to the university’s protocols that were shared with students Tuesday. If self-isolation is not possible, students must receive a negative test result no more than 72 hours prior to arrival.
Franklin Pierce will require vaccine boosters, according to the protocols. Students and staff without approved medical or religious exemptions were required to be vaccinated ahead of the 2021-22 school year.
The university will work with members of the community has as they approach booster eligibility, Grosso Gann said. People who received Moderna or Pfizer vaccines are eligible for a booster six months after receiving the second dose, or two months after receiving a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Due to a state law passed last year, Keene State cannot require COVID-19 vaccines this school year. But the college is encouraging all students and staff to get the shot and consider sharing proof of vaccination with the school’s Wellness Center through a confidential online portal.
FPU students and staff will also be required to wear masks in all classroom and indoor public settings throughout January, according to the announcement. Next month, masks may be required in areas with greater traffic, such as the library, field house and health services.
“... [T]he University will re-assess its plans as the semester progresses and will continue to make decisions that are in the best interest of our students, faculty, and staff,” Grosso Gann said.
Midway through a House Education Committee hearing Tuesday, a member of the committee posed a weighty question to the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire.
“There are academic people out there in New Hampshire and everywhere, who advocate in classes … for ideologies, for movements, and for people who favor the violent overthrow of our government,” said Rep. Mike Moffett, a Loudon Republican. “Is this treasonous, seditious behavior in classrooms OK with you?”
Devon Chaffee of the ACLU replied that she had no indication that that type of instruction was happening in New Hampshire higher education.
“That is not the type of activity or discussion in classrooms that we are seeing being shut down by the existing banned concepts law,” she said.
Moffett moved on. But the exchange marked the beginning of a new front in the political battle over teaching techniques in New Hampshire schools, and a preview of a bitter debate to come.
A year after passing into law a set of regulations barring K-12 teachers from certain instruction around race and gender, some Republican lawmakers are pressing to extend the regulations to the state’s public colleges and universities.
Introduced this month, House Bill 1313 would build on legislation added to the state budget trailer bill in 2021 that barred teachers from teaching that one race, gender, or other protected class was inherently superior or advantaged over another; that members of one protected were inherently oppressive over members of another class, consciously or unconsciously; and that members of one class should be treated differently from members of another class.
The law empowers parents to make complaints about instruction in schools, and teachers could see their credentials revoked if the N.H. Commission for Human Rights or a superior court finds them in violation of the law.
Under HB 1313, the Legislature would add higher education institutions to the original bill, sometimes referred to as the “divisive concepts” bill.
Republicans say it’s the logical extension of a piece of legislation they see as an anti-discrimination bill. Advocates of the original bill that was signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu as part of the state budget say it protected students from being exposed to ideologically driven teachings about the presence of oppression — and from being labeled oppressors themselves.
“One should not convey to any individual that his or her color, creed, or other defining characteristics is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive. whether consciously or unconsciously,” said Rep Rick Ladd, the bill’s primary sponsor and the chairman of the Education Committee.
“Any instructor aligning and communicating one’s own vision of race relations with a national narrative that uses diversity and inclusion as its platform is unacceptable,” Ladd, a Haverhil Republican, continued.
But Democrats and other opponents, like the ACLU, have strenuously opposed last year’s legislation, arguing that the new teaching prohibitions are vaguely constructed and will chill teaching by incentivizing teachers to avoid nuanced discussions on racism and oppression altogether. In December, groups ranging from the National Education Association to the American Federation of Teachers and the ACLU launched two separate lawsuits against New Hampshire’s law in federal court, seeking to strike it down due to vagueness.
Extending the statute to include higher education could pose additional constitutional challenges around the protection of academic freedom, opponents argue. U.S. and state Supreme Court caselaw has historically ensured that right for professors, Chaffee said.
“Anyone who assigned a book that (a parent or student) perceives is banned by the act could file a superior court lawsuit against the professor’s school and potentially the professor themselves,” Chaffee said. “It’s no wonder that educators are acting out of caution and fear. And because of that students are missing out on critically important discussions on race and gender.”
Representatives of the University System of New Hampshire and Community College System of New Hampshire are also speaking against the proposed expansion. Addressing lawmakers on the Education Committee, Shannon Reid, director of government affairs for the Community College System, said that the newly proposed expansion could prove confusing for professors and teaching staff.
“The general intent to include public post-secondary education under (the previous statute) would seem to raise contradictions with widely accepted tenets of academic freedom of college and university faculty,” Reid said. “Regardless of which way one leans on the concept, the ambiguities themselves are going to be very problematic.”
For Ladd and other supporters, the concerns around the law are misplaced. The law doesn’t prevent college professors from discussing concepts at the heart of “critical race theory,” systematic oppression, or historical racism, Ladd argued. Instead it would prevent the academics from teaching any one concept of racial or gender power dynamics as fact, he said.
“We’re not saying that you can’t be teaching issues that are in our past that have dealt with race, but you’re not going to advocate it as your personal belief,” he said.
But Ladd and others say the law is also an attempt to distinguish the past from the present, and prevent a portrait of modern day society that suggests oppression still widely exists.
“The false national narrative that professes that all states suffer from centuries of white privilege, white supremacy, and systematic racism does not reflect New Hampshire,” Ladd argued. “Any instruction promoting that racism is alive and well in New Hampshire does not reflect post-secondary education in our state. Nor does it accurately portray our residents, particularly those who have been here for generations.”
One hearing attendee, Louise Spencer, co-founder of the progressive Kent Street Coalition, took issue with that objective, pointing to speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. arguing that America would need decades to attain racial equity and historical education.
To Spencer, the proposed law is at odds with the goals of higher education, arguing that colleges and post-secondary institutions should be spaces where students and professors can debate and disagree.
“One of the greatest things I achieved out of my college education was the ability to have these very difficult and painful discussions at times,” Spencer said. “That really is the best of what a college education can offer. I do not need to agree with my professor, nor does my professor need to agree with me.”
HB 1313 has a journey ahead: The House Education Committee will vote on whether to recommend the bill be passed in the coming weeks, and the bill will advance to the House floor for a full vote afterward.
The debate comes as some Republicans are seeking to expand the “divisive concepts” law in K-12 schools, with a group of House representatives introducing House Bill 1255, which would create a “teacher’s loyalty” statute that would prevent teachers from instructing “any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing bills to repeal the new law. House Bill 1090 and Senate Bill 304 would both undo the previous “divisive concepts” law, and specify that “no education law of this state shall be construed to bar any school employee from teaching the historical or current experiences of any group that is protected from discrimination.”