By James Baker
Foster's Daily Democrat Staff Writer
Photo right: Firefighters pull down loose debris left hanging precariously after a five-alarm fire ravaged The Old Salt restaurant Wednesday in Hampton Beach. More than 200 firefighters from 23 agencies responded to the call. No one was seriously hurt. The fire ranks as one of the worst the area has seen in 25 years. (Staff photo — Mike Ross)
HAMPTON — A lighted cigarette may have been the cause of a five-alarm blaze Wednesday that required a team of more than 200 firefighters to bring under control.
Although the cause is still being investigated and all possibilities are being considered, Hampton Fire Chief Hank Lipe and state Fire Marshal Don Bliss said a cigarette dropped underneath a stairwell may have started the blaze that gutted three Ocean Boulevard buildings.
Whatever the cause, fire officials say the devastation could have been even more catastrophic were it not for the quick and decisive action taken by Hampton Deputy Fire Chief Anthony Chouinard, a 30-year veteran who took on the responsibility of coordinating 23 agencies into one cohesive unit.
In addition to Hampton, firefighters from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and numerous communities played a role in fighting the blaze, which damaged the Old Salt Eating and Drinking Place, the Springfield Motor Lodge and five businesses in an adjacent building. Two firefighters receiving minor injuries battling the blaze.
The communities include Portsmouth, Hampton Falls, North Hampton, Seabrook, Rye, New Castle, Newington, Exeter, Greenland, Stratham, Newfields, Newmarket and Dover.
Firefighters from Brentwood, Epping and Raymond also battled the blaze, which took more than four hours to bring under control and has been described as the worst fire in town in at least 25 years.
Several Massachusetts towns were called as well — Newbury, Newburyport, Merrimac, Salisbury, the Amesbury Fire Department and the Amesbury Civil Defense Lighting Unit.
With so many agencies at the fire at once, Chouinard said immediate assessment and reaction became critical.
"I guess I’ve been on the job long enough where response becomes second nature, but I’ve got to say this: The most difficult aspect for any commander on the scene like this is taking in everything at once and developing an immediate strategy," he said.
Even before firefighters arrived, Chouinard said his first order of business involved determining what apparatus would be necessary to fight the blaze and where to most effectively place each piece of equipment.
In addition, Chouinard said, his responsibilities entailed coordinating station coverage and forming a rapid intervention team.
"The intervention team’s function is to be immediately accessible in case of injury, and their presence was particularly important in a situation like this one. One of the biggest dangers we were facing was the instability of the structures because they could have collapsed without any warning.
"All that planning and dispersing of information is coordinated through the dispatch center, and then it’s a matter of assembling each component as it arrives," he said.
The fire presented Chouinard with the serious problem of formulating a plan that would enable fire personnel to effectively fight three fires raging simultaneously.
It can’t be done alone," said Chouinard, who singled out the efforts of Portsmouth Fire Chief Ricky Plummer, who commanded one post along K Street next to the Old Salt, and Exeter Fire Chief John Carbonneau, whose job as sector commander was to serve as Chouinard’s eyes and ears while overseeing operations along J Street next to the motor lodge.
"An on-scene commander can’t see everything, but their input allowed me to see the whole picture," he said.
Plummer said Chouinard’s ability to take control was the one of the better jobs he has seen in his career as a firefighter.
"To keep three buildings contained like that is almost unheard of. Tony and the Hampton Fire Department did an unbelievable job. I think one of his biggest accomplishments out there was going to five alarms almost immediately because he was smart enough to know that a lot of mutual aid was going to be a necessity in keeping the fire under control," he said.
But Chouinard, who was also lauded by Lipe, was quick in praising the efforts of everyone involved in the operation.
"Every man out there put his life on the line, and every one of them deserves thanks. Hampton Water Works also did a tremendous job because even though the Church Street water tower was out of service, it didn’t affect the water flow whatsoever, and there were times when we were cranking out as much as 4,000 gallons of water a minute.
"I may have been the coordinator, but the mutual aid system worked beautifully. There weren’t any turf battles out there, and we all worked like one big organization. I can’t thank them all enough," he said.