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.