First on the Scene: ‘It Was Just a Big Ball of Fire’
A Hot Day, a Fast-Moving Blaze and an Escape Into the River
Firefighters take a break from working on the fire in downtown Lebanon, N.H., on June 19, 1964. (Valley News photograph)
A building is levelled by fire towards the upper end of Mill Street in Lebanon, N.H., on June 19, 1964. (Courtesy Lebanon Historical Society)
Buildings burn at Hills Crossing on Mill Street in Lebanon, N.H., on June 19, 1964. (Courtesy Lebanon Historical Society)
Firefighters battle the blaze on Hanover Street in Lebanon, N.H., on June 19, 1964, that destroyed 22 downtown businesses. (Courtesy Lebanon Historical Society)
Lebanon — Gusty winds blew hot air through the downtown area in waves. It was the kind of day that invited a swim in the river to cool down after work. But a swim was the last thing Lebanon firefighter Charley Brown was thinking about when he answered the alarm on the afternoon of Friday, June 19, 1964.
Yet it was the swim he took that day that may have saved his life.
The call came in at 4:08 p.m. A building was burning on Mill Street. It looked pretty bad.
“We were the first truck to arrive on the scene,” recalled Brown, then 21. “It was just a big ball of fire. It was awful. ... Roland Thibodeau got the truck out there in no time. We were the first ones to put water on it.”
That water, however, barely put a dent in the blaze. And in a matter of minutes, Brown and Thibodeau realized they were overmatched.
“You couldn’t grab the nozzle it was so hot,” recalled Brown, 50 years later. “Roland used an ax to cut the hoses off. We had to get out of there. ... We didn’t even empty the water in our truck. And what water we did put on that fire had absolutely no effect.”
As other trucks came to the scene, Brown helped out by laying lines to bring water to bear on the blaze.
But the fire was moving — fast — down both sides of the street.
Suddenly, Brown found himself between Lander’s Restaurant and the old laundry as the wind started blowing flames across the street.
“Everyone was leaving,” said Brown. “I just didn’t make it.”
Trapped, he started looking for a way out.
“I don’t mind telling you I was scared,” said Brown.
Down near the river, by the Suburban Gas building, Brown hopped a fence and went into the Mascoma River.
“I took my boots and jacket off and threw my hat across to the other side. ... It was quite narrow at that point,” said Brown. “The water wasn’t running too swiftly, and it wasn’t too deep. I just walked a bit and swam a bit to get across. ... When I got across, you could see those (propane) tanks just flying into the air.”
Once safely on the far side, Brown walked back over the bridge to rejoin the battle, running an aerial ladder the rest of the day.
The next day, Brown remembers, he walked around the downtown and taking in the scene. “It was an awful, smoldering mess,” he said. “Burnt buildings were all over the place. ... I think the fire smoldered for days.” He also noticed that the first fire truck to have made it to the scene was a bit the worse for wear — much of its paint just blistered off.
Still, as destructive as the fire was, things could have been much worse, according to Brown.
“We had firewalls on either side of the town,” he said. “One was on the opposite side of the bridge that ran over the railroad tracks. The other was beside the Woolworth’s building.”
The walls, constructed of brick, prevent or slow the spread of fire, limiting building damage and providing more time to battle the conflagration. “Those two walls helped stop the fire enough for us to put it out,” said Brown. “If not for them, probably the rest of the downtown would have gone up.”
Bert Leonard remembers the event like it was yesterday.
You might expect a fire that razes the heart of a city would have that effect on people.
Leonard, who worked for 40 years as a firefighter and police officer in Lebanon, was just a 21-year-old working in the E. Cummings Tannery on that June morning in 1964.
“It was hotter than hell (in there), so I got up and went to get a drink of water. What was odd was that there were usually eight to 10 guys working at the same time. But I looked around and there was nobody there.”
Just at that moment, Leonard heard his name called. “Someone yelled, ‘Hey, look out the window and see what you are missing.’ ”
The back side of the tannery overlooked the downtown area. As Leonard looked out the window, he was shocked by the scene unfolding. “The whole of Mill Street was burning.”
Leonard and a number of his co-workers headed for the tannery roof, where the fire hoses were stored. “We grabbed them and shot water across the river and into the fire,” he recalled, “but the firestorm blew the water right back in our faces.”
Leonard left the tannery and headed over the Hanover Street bridge by the Army-Navy store next to the Mascoma River, where he helped man hoses for a time. He could see people desperately moving clothes and sporting equipment out of Tom’s Toggery, trying to save them from the encroaching flames. Others were hauling paint from the hardware store.
“Help was coming from all over the place,” said Leonard. “But it was hardly having any effect. ... The fire just overwhelmed everything. In no time it had jumped the tracks.”
A scary scene at the Suburban Gas building has stayed with Leonard all these years: “The propane tanks weren’t exactly blowing up, but the caps were blowing off and the tanks looked like skyrockets,” he said.
Three years after the fire, Leonard joined the Lebanon Fire Department. He eventually became the city’s fire prevention officer. Today, he is retired and lives in Goffstown, N.H.
“But every year around this time, I think back to that fire and everything that happened,” he said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Donald Mahler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3225.