Origin of fire at Odd Fellows "suspicious"

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Hampton Union, February 16, 1990

HAMPTON -- Fire inspectors from here and the fire marshal's office in New Hampshire and Maine have ruled out all "natural causes" of the blaze that destroyed the historic Odd Fellows Block last month [January 27, 1990].

In addition to eliminating such possible causes as faulty wiring or defective heating systems, fire inspectors discovered two separate points of ignition -- in the basement and near a first floor exit, Fire Chief William Sullivan said during a press conference yesterday.

"The cause is undetermined, but we are leaning towards suspicious origin and it is that way because we ruled out the natural causes," Sullivan said.

Treacherous conditions prevented inspectors from probing the site until this week when the Salisbury, Mass., demolition contractor was able to use a sky crane to remove charred timbers and debris from the building. Local and state investigators were joined by Joseph LeVasseur of the Maine Fire Marshal's Office, who was on the scene handling a dog trained to detect fire accelerants such as gasoline.

The dog found no trace of accelerants, said Sullivan, but the trail may have gone cold in the two weeks since the fire.

"I don't know what a two-week period would do to certain accelerants, but I think if there were anything the dog would have picked it up," Sullivan said. He added that his "gut feeling" was that any liquid fuel would have seeped into the wooden floor near the second point near the exit and been detectable. Sullivan was told the oldest scent trail the dog has successfully followed was three to four days old.

Inspectors spent much time in the basement where the fire broke out near the heating system in the rear of the building.

"From closer inspection in the basement that fire had been burning for a long time before we got the alarm," Sullivan said. "Well over an hour."

Fire investigators looked at the gas fired heating system, wiring and other material in the building and eliminated accidental or natural causes. The physical investigation is complete, but the case remains open as long as inspectors receive new evidence or reports.

"We have to wait, just like we are doing with the 1989 fires," said Sullivan. "We have to wait for a break."

In 1989 there were 15 fires where the causes were listed as of suspicious origin. Sullivan confirmed at press conference in November that fire department officials believe many of the unexplained fires were intentionally set.

The chief said fire investigators have not found any points of forced entry into the historic hall, but they are still checking with firefighters who battled the fire to find if any doors or windows were found open at the time of the blaze. Firefighters had to break down doors and windows to get inside to combat the Jan. 27 fire.

State Fire Marshal Bill Toland also addressed the media yesterday and said his office will continue working on the case in conjunction with local inspectors. "We will continue to monitor the situation with Hampton," said Toland, adding that with this fire and others of suspicious origin Hampton, "they're open books."

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