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Norwich Loses Entire Police Car Fleet to Fire

  • Vermont State Police and Division of Fire Safety Investigators could not immediately determine the cause of the fire that destroyed Norwich's police cars. (Courtesy Norwich Police Department)

    Vermont State Police and Division of Fire Safety Investigators could not immediately determine the cause of the fire that destroyed Norwich's police cars. (Courtesy Norwich Police Department)

  • The Norwich Fire Department responded to a 911 call at 2:40 a.m. on Thanksgiving to find all three Norwich Police Department vehicles on fire in the department's parking lot. (Courtesy Norwich Police Department)

    The Norwich Fire Department responded to a 911 call at 2:40 a.m. on Thanksgiving to find all three Norwich Police Department vehicles on fire in the department's parking lot. (Courtesy Norwich Police Department)

  • Vermont State Police and Division of Fire Safety Investigators could not immediately determine the cause of the fire that destroyed Norwich's police cars. (Courtesy Norwich Police Department)
  • The Norwich Fire Department responded to a 911 call at 2:40 a.m. on Thanksgiving to find all three Norwich Police Department vehicles on fire in the department's parking lot. (Courtesy Norwich Police Department)

The Norwich Police Department lost its entire fleet of police cruisers to a fire early yesterday morning. A preliminary review by a state arson investigator found that the blaze, which occurred in the parking lot behind the police station, was not suspicious.

Norwich Police Chief Doug Robinson received a call around 2:40 a.m. from dispatch telling him that it had received a 911 call saying that all three of the department’s police cruisers were on fire.

When Robinson reached the station around 3 a.m., the Fire Department was already battling the blaze.

Robinson said the total loss is worth at $100,000 and that he initially suspected that the fire was arson.

However, a state arson investigator and a member of the Vermont Division of Fire Safety came to the scene yesterday morning and made a preliminary determination that the fire was not intentional.

The arson investigator said the fire might have been a mechanical fire in the middle car that then radiated to the nearby vehicles, but the origin of the fire is undetermined, Robinson said.

“I don’t know. They’re the professionals,” the skeptical police chief said. “Until I hear otherwise, I have to go with what they say because they have the training to investigate fires. I don’t.”

Robinson stressed that the fire is still under investigation, however, and he appeared far from convinced that the cars hadn’t been targeted.

For now, the Hartford Police Department and Windsor County Sheriff have each given Norwich a cruiser on loan.

The cars were parked so that a 2010 Ford Explorer was next to one of two sedans. A second sedan sat two parking space away leaving about 10 feet between the two vehicles.

Robinson said that he was told that the fire could have started in the middle vehicle and then leapt to the other cars.

Not only did Norwich lose the department’s only three cruisers, but almost all the equipment inside of the cars was destroyed because of water and smoke damage. The department keeps mobile data sets, cameras, radios, first aid and AED equipment in the cruisers.

Since the three cars were insured, Robinson said he doesn’t expect to have to ask residents to allocate additional money through a special Town Meeting, but he said it could take more than a month before the department has its own set of cruisers again.

The cars were towed yesterday and placed behind the highway department so that the town’s insurance adjuster can examine the damage. All that was left at the scene yesterday afternoon were charred remains that had been swept to the end of the parking lot and a circle of foam left behind by firefighters. A red Vermont license plate could be made out, as well as a burned tire and a small length of silver pipe.

Inside the police station, a small ranch house that sits behind the fire station off Main Street, were black shoe prints from officers and firefighters that had trudged soot indoors. Two fire extinguishers sat on the floor next to a blue bag full of water safety gear and a green bag full of first aid equipment.

On a nearby table were handcuffs, tape and red flares that had been salvaged from inside the cars.

Robinson said that he had received several emails from Norwich residents and Selectboard members, and Town Manager Neil Fulton had stopped by in the early afternoon to check in on the department.

“Norwich is a very tight-knit community,” Robinson said. “They’re very passionate about things. And this is very invasive. They’re all appalled that this could happen.”

Cornelia Waterfall had been asleep in her apartment behind the police station when she was awoken by a terrible banging at her front door and multiple door bell rings. When the 83-year-old woman answered the door, she was greeted by a frantic neighbor who told her about the fire and said she was worried that it would spread to the Norwich Senior Housing where Waterfall lived.

Waterfall gathered her handbag, cell phone and jacket before heading outside, before she was told by a police officer that she should return remain inside because of the concern that ammunition in the cars could go off in the fire.

Waterfall added that she heard many loud popping noises that sounded like small explosions, and she could smell burning tires.

“It was a very dramatic fire because the flames were leaping very high,” Waterfall said. “It was like a wall of fire.”

Waterfall had a clear view of the fire because her glass screen door faced the department. She watched the scene for awhile before trying to go back to sleep.

However, she said she was so wide awake that she decided to crack enough pecans to make her second Thanksgiving pie.

Just like Robinson, Waterfall said she assumed the fire was arson.

“If it was really a mechanical problem that started the fire, it would be reassuring,” Waterfall said. “I certainly jumped to a different conclusion.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.