Video: Businesses Already Planning for Comeback After Devastating Fire

  • Crews works at the site of a fire that destroyed three buildings in a White River Junction, Vt., industrial park near Ratcliffe Park on February 28, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph) Rob Strong photograph

  • Firefighters respond to a fire, which destroyed three buildings near Ratcliffe Park comprising office, garage and storage space, on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Matt Dunbar, of Hartland, Vt., watches as officials respond to a fire, which destroyed three buildings near Ratcliffe Park comprising office, garage and storage space, on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, in White River Junction, Vt. Dunbar was sleeping in his parked truck outside the building on Harrison Avenue, off Nutt Lane, and was awakened by the fire around 3:30 a.m. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jovelle Tamayo

  • A fire investigator takes a phone call while on the scene of a fire near Ratcliffe Park on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, in White River Junction, Vt. The fire destroyed three buildings comprising office, garage and manufacturing space. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Luke Harvey, of Lebanon, N.H., recounts being on the scene as a fire broke out near Ratcliffe Park on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, in White River Junction, Vt. The fire destroyed three buildings comprising office, garage and manufacturing space. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nate Hine, of Strafford, Vt., examines damage to his employer Solaflect Energy's property as a result of a fire, which destroyed three buildings near Ratcliffe Park on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, in White River Junction, Vt. Hine, director of engineering at Solaflect Energy, has worked at the industrial park for 11 years. He lamented the loss of custom equipment the company will now have to rebuild. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jovelle Tamayo

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/1/2017 12:22:16 AM
Modified: 3/2/2017 12:06:22 AM

White River Junction — When a ringing phone woke Kenny Keith from a sound sleep in the pre-dawn darkness of his Hartland home, he knew immediately that something was wrong.

And when his son, Jared Keith, told him that a fire had broken out in the industrial park they owned together nine miles up Route 5, in White River Junction, he had only one thought.

How bad?

Keith threw on clothes, and began to back out of his driveway before realizing he didn’t have to drive to Hartford to get that particular piece of information. The answer to his question was written in the sky, an orange glow pulsing on the horizon.

“I knew,” Keith said hours later, looking at the smoldering ruins of the office, the garage, the factory. “It was bad.”

You Don’t Know What’s in There

When Matt Dunbar woke up, it wasn’t to a ringing telephone. It was to an explosion.

Dunbar’s earrings, trademark black ballcap and tall, thin frame give him a youthful look — “that skinny kid,” Keith called him, though Dunbar is 35 and has already been driving truck for 15 years. Dunbar was one of the many drivers who owned his own truck, and paid Keith for use of the garage and parking in the industrial park off Nutt Lane. Because truckers can start and end their runs at any time, they often make use of their round-the-clock access, and early on Tuesday morning, Dunbar had parked among a handful of other vehicles in a parking area off Harrison, directly across from the garage. Dunbar was sleeping in the cab of his truck, waiting until it was time to pick up some mail from the White River Junction mail-sorting facility.

The explosion woke him, but at first he thought he had just heard one of the other rigs banging into a building. Only when the glow of the flames began to play off his windshield did he realize that the office building and the garage were on fire.

Those on the scene credited Dunbar with making the first call to 911 — officials with the New Hampshire Division of Emergency Communications said they received a string of seven calls, beginning at 3:40 a.m.

Dunbar said he placed his call earlier than that, at 3:23 a.m., and that it took emergency services a frustratingly long time to process his call.

“I said, ‘You need to get here ASAP.’ I said, ‘You don’t know what’s in there,’ ” Dunbar said.

A Mushroom Cloud

Dunbar got out of his truck and watched the fire grow in front of him, replacing the February chill with a steadily increasing blast of heat. It ravaged the office and the garage, then spread to the factory next door, where Solaflect manufactures solar panels. Every time he thought about creeping nearer, an explosion persuaded him otherwise. The explosions came repeatedly, from various quarters. Diesel tanks straddling the chassis of a truck parked near the front of the garage. Propane tanks that had recently been installed to heat the office space. Transformers atop the utility poles went off with a satisfying pop, cutting power to the nine businesses that rented from Keith. More transformers, in storage for Green Mountain Power. A waste-oil container in the garage. The gas tank of a car parked behind the garage.

Neighbors noticed.

Those who live in the Nutt Lane neighborhood have been fearful of just this sort of disaster for years, made worse because of a unique geography that pins the low-lying and flood-prone area between the Connecticut River and South Main Street. The only way to escape the neighborhood is by crossing the train tracks at Nutt Lane, which connects to South Main. Because trains sometimes linger on that track, choking the neighborhood off from the outside world, a poorly-timed disaster carries with it an added danger for all who live there. Fortunately, this time, the tracks were clear, and shutting the train lines was one of the first priorities of emergency responders.

Still, those who live on and along Nutt Lane were affected by the cacophony of explosions.

“They were loud coughing sounds, explosions,” said Vina Reynolds, 85, whose Harrison Avenue home is right next to the industrial park. “I’m so grateful (the blaze) didn’t come this way.”

Ben Wimett said that he’s used to the sound of trains shaking his Nutt Lane home, but that one of the explosions was in another class altogether, launching he and his wife out of bed to gape at the spectacle of the flaming industrial park across the road.

“It shook the whole house,” he said.

The same big explosion also roused Anna Grover, another Nutt Lane resident, and both of them were part of a growing crowd of neighbors who saw an enormous gush of flame, propelling itself against the earth in an energy bonanza that hurled high above the treetops and into the sky.

Wimett called it “a nice fireball,” while Grover said it was “a mushroom cloud” of fire.

A Sense of Alertness

The neighbors weren’t the only ones to witness the big explosion.

Nor were they the closest to it.

Luke Harvey, a six-year veteran of the Hartford Fire Department, had dragged himself from bed when his pager went off to announce the two-alarm fire. He left behind his wife, who often stays glued to the scanner to reassure herself that he’s OK. He drove to the station, and commandeered the next vehicle going out, a ladder truck.

It was the biggest fire Harvey had ever seen.

Firefighters from throughout the region were turning up in force by then — Lebanon and Hanover, Hartland and Woodstock, Windsor and Plainfield. It was a tricky fire for the reason that Dunbar had grasped instantly — the businesses occupying the park had all sorts of fuel that were, in some cases, unmoored and exposed.

Harvey was attracted to the rear of the property, where a car parked behind the garage was going up in flames. While two other responders trained a hose on it, a propane line climbing the wall of the office building was severed, instantly creating a makeshift flamethrower that sprouted a 15-foot stream of fire.

Worried that the flames would cause a stand of trees to catch fire, Harvey darted toward the propane line, stopping at a wooden box on the grass that he suspected contained the propane shut-off. He was right, and as he turned the valve to cut off the propane supply, the stream of fire snuffed out.

That was when the big explosion happened. The waste oil fuel tank in the garage had caught, not 30 feet from where Harvey was standing.

He jumped, he admitted later that afternoon. But he declined to describe himself as having been scared.

“It made me heighten my sense of alertness,” he said.

Asked that afternoon how high the flames from the tank went, Harvey pointed straight up.

A Couple of Days

Mike Nucci, tall and rumpled, walked around the site of the fire on Tuesday afternoon, carrying a clear plastic bag filled with hundreds of absorbent spill pads. In his wake were hundreds more of the pads on the ground, their antiseptic whiteness quickly staining with the muddy brown mixture of water, oil and other chemicals that surrounded the site.

Nucci, a member of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources spill team, said he had come to the site to ensure that Keith would hire a professional company to clean up the hazardous materials, some of which had spread off the industrial park property and formed slicks on neighboring properties, including in Reynolds’ backyard.

Nucci said Keith had been responsive, and immediately called the Barre, Vt.-based remediation company Accuworx, which had already dispatched a team.

“It will take couple of days,” said Nucci.

Keith, who had spent a good portion of the day pacing and smoking cigarettes while talking on the phone, stopped sometimes, staring at the ashes of the buildings he’d worked out of for the past 10 years. With the flames giving way to smoking ruins, state investigators used heavy equipment to dismantle the larger chunks of debris.

“It’s just sad because these are the people I knew,” Grover said, speaking of the truck drivers to whom she used to wave each morning. “I hope they can find new jobs.”

Gordon Cruz and Manny Terceira work at the home heating company Simple Energy, which is located in the industrial park, but wasn’t damaged by the flames.

Still, the popping of the transformers had cut their electricity, leaving them temporarily unable to power the pump that draws fuel from a holding tank to their fleet of trucks.

“The boys were inspecting the line,” Cruz told the company owner, Rob Stenger. “The conduit was barbecued.”

Trevor Edson stood at the edge of the Solaflect factory, where he rented storage space for the small company he helms, Teddy’s Lawn Care and Landscaping Services. Edson, 30, has been building the business in one way or another since he first started mowing lawns at the age of 14. The five lawnmowers were destroyed. So were the pruners, which he needed to trim some apple trees this week. The front end of his truck had melted a bit, but he thought it was salvageable. The snowblowers, the weed whackers, the tools and replacement parts that had formed the body of his business — everything was gone.

The Life We Live

Had the fire happened to a less resilient group of individuals, and a different kind of business cluster, the event might have been a time for mourning and hand-wringing. But the workers who picked through the ashen remains of their livelihoods on Tuesday shed no tears. Most of them didn’t even seem to be upset. All talked about strategies they were formulating to get back to work.

“This slows me down a little bit,” said Edson. “If I need a mower, I’ll go get a mower. My customers are going to be taken care of.”

Stenger noted that the power outage had only paused Simple Energy’s flow of fuel to its trucks by about an hour.

“We have an emergency management plan,” he said. A gas-powered pump had been hooked up. The crew had assessed the lines, and expected to be able to replace them later on Tuesday, when GMP topped the utility poles with a new round of transformers.

Harvey said he would have no qualms telling his wife about his proximity to the explosion that lit up the sky.

“She’s accepting of it,” he said. “This is the life we live.”

And even Keith, whose ownership seemed to place him at the center of the thousand-and-one headaches that were sure to ensue, said the catastrophe wouldn’t spell the end of the industrial park.

“I plan,” he said, “to rebuild.”

Staff writer Rob Wolfe contributed to this report.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.




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