2 firefighters recovering after Lebanon hotel explosion

Staff Report

Published: 12-25-2019 9:52 PM

LEBANON — An explosion at a Route 120 hotel injured two firefighters and forced the evacuation of dozens of guests before dawn Tuesday morning.

The Lebanon Fire Department responded to an alarm at the Element Hotel, located on Foothill Street overlooking the commuter corridor to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and nearby Centerra Marketplace, at 5:15 a.m., according to Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos.

Lebanon firefighter Todd Hamilton and Capt. Jeffrey Egner were investigating the smell of smoke on the first floor when their attempt to force entry into a utility room that holds the building’s mechanical systems triggered an explosion there and on the top floor of the five-story hotel.

Hamilton suffered head injuries, a broken arm and broken ribs and Egner suffered a head injury. Both men were treated at the medical center and released, Christopoulos said.

Eight hotel guests “sustained non-life-threatening injuries and were treated at area hospitals,” according to a news release from the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Christopoulos said an elderly person slipped and fell on ice during the evacuation, causing minor injuries. Lebanon firefighters rescued three guests through first-floor windows. There were 80 guests and three staff members in the hotel.

The need to search such a large building — the hotel has 120 rooms — led to a third alarm and the response of nine fire departments and 40 to 50 first responders, Christopoulos said in a news release later Tuesday. The cause of the explosion remains under investigation by Lebanon Fire as well as the State Fire Marshal and the state’s chief mechanical and electric inspectors, who were on the scene Tuesday.

The cause of the explosion “does not appear to be criminal in nature and was contained to only the hotel building,” according to the Tuesday news release from the state.

The utility room where the explosion happened houses electrical and heating systems, including a propane-powered boiler, Christopoulos said. “We have not determined, nor will we speculate on what the cause is at this point,” Christopoulos said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.

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On Wednesday, Christopoulos said he expected a preliminary report may be released as soon as Friday.

Christopoulos estimated the utility room to be about 20-by-20 feet. Large chunks of exterior wall on the first and fifth floors could be seen detached and dangling from the building Tuesday morning, and much of it remained there on Christmas day, when the parking lot was largely empty except for a van for a demolition and clean-up company. Shards of glass remained scattered in one area of the lot overlooking Route 120, and a neatly made hotel bed was visible from the back side of the property, its exterior wall gone.

Three or four of the guest rooms sustained significant damage, Christopoulos said.

Hotel staff were able to access some of the rooms to help guests recover their belongings on Tuesday afternoon, and the fire depart expected to turn the hotel over to its owners by late afternoon, Christopoulos said.

The Element Hotel suffered “a significant amount of damage” and will remain closed “for the foreseeable future,” state fire officials said in the release.

The hotel, which opened in December 2014, is owned by Norwich Partners, a hotel and investment company. David Leatherwood, the company’s chief executive officer, and Eric Sachsse, the company’s president, both of Norwich, were at the hotel on Tuesday afternoon.

“Given the magnitude of the event, we feel extremely blessed,” Leatherwood said. “It could have been much worse.”

At the time of the evacuation, 54 rooms were occupied by about 80 guests, Leatherwood said. The guests were moved to two other Marriott hotels that Norwich Partners owns at Centerra.

The hotel’s two dozen employees will continue to be paid, Leatherwood said. It could be “weeks and weeks” before the hotel reopens, he added.

Along with its Upper Valley properties, Norwich Partners has developed and owned more than 20 hotels in Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Florida.

Valley News staff members Alex Hanson, Jennifer Hauck and Jim Kenyon contributed to this report.

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