By James Baker
Foster's Daily Democrat Staff Writer
HAMPTON — A wind-swept blaze ripped through a downtown block Wednesday afternoon, destroying five beachfront businesses and six apartment units.
Photo right: Firefighters prepare to hose down the roof on the third floor of The Old Salt restaurant during the fire in Hampton Beach which destroyed two buildings, including The Old Salt, and heavily damaged a third Wednesday afternoon. (Staff photo — Tim Boyd)
Two firefighters received minor injuries battling the Ocean Boulevard blaze that Hampton Fire Chief Hank Lipe called the worst in town in at least 25 years.
Although preliminary news reports said the damage exceeded $1 million and may reach $3 million, fire officials could not confirm those figures this morning.
As plumes of dense smoke that could be seen from miles away filled the sky, more than 200 firefighters from two dozen communities battled the blaze for four hours before managing to get it under control about 6:30 p.m.
Hampton Fire Capt. Guy Larivee said this morning a crew worked through the night to extinguish the remaining hot spots and would be back at the scene today.
Portsmouth firefighter Al Bais was taken to Exeter Hospital after suffering smoke inhalation. An unidentified firefighter sustained cuts to his hand and was treated at the scene.
The fire reportedly started on a stairwell at the Old Salt Eating and Drinking Place, located at the corner of K Street.
Aided by westerly winds coming in off the ocean, the fire quickly fanned out, engulfing an adjacent three-story, wood-frame building housing Lexie’s Pizzaria, Cecile’s Gift Shop, Haven’s Cafe and six apartment units, then spreading next door to the Springfield Motor Lodge.
Hundreds of curious onlookers lined the beachwalk behind police barricades as fire personnel from as far away as Amesbury, Mass., worked feverishly to fight the fire.
The fire departments included units from Portsmouth, Exeter, Greenland, Rye, North Hampton, Seabrook, Newington, New Castle, Raymond and Epping.
Lipe said firefighting efforts were hampered by tactical problems preventing what he referred to as an interior attack on the buildings.
Water pressure problems required firefighters to stretch out hoses hundreds of feet to hydrants on Ashworth Avenue, which runs parallel to Ocean Boulevard, Lipe said.
"That made it difficult enough, but these buildings are more than 100 years old and have sustained a lot of structural damage. It was treacherous sending our men inside, but the first responders did a great job keeping the fire contained before it had a chance to spread any further. This was a tough one," he said.
waiting ambulance during the fire.
(Staff photo -- Tim Boyd)
Lipe said preliminary indications suggest there is no reason to believe the fire is suspicious in nature.
"The fire investigators will be out here for some time, I’d imagine, trying to sort out all the details," he said.
Portsmouth fire Capt. Vassilios Pamboukes echoed Lipe’s comments, calling the blaze "as bad a fire as I’ve seen in awhile."
"The first responders were confronted with some huge difficulties, but they threw themselves into the fight with everything they had. They all deserve a lot of credit because there was potential for a great deal more damage," he said.
While firefighters battled the inferno, several store owners stood by staring in disbelief.
Bob Preston, owner of Preston Real Estate, said he was just grateful no one was inside the six apartment units.
"That was my first concern. We’re very, very fortunate no one was injured or worse. There’s a lot of damage here, but better it be property than a life," he said.
Bob King, whose wife owns Cecile’s Gift Shop, said his initial concern was for two young women who recently moved into one of the units and had been working at the store.
"I found out later they had been out sightseeing, and that was a great relief to me," he said.
As for the store, King said it appears the fire destroyed all the merchandise.
"Right now it looks like we’re done for the summer. I don’t think there’s much left to work with," he said.
Meanwhile, the Seacoast chapter of the American Red Cross, which was at the fire for several hours, announced it is offering assistance to the victims by providing food, clothes and shelter.
Disaster Director Karen Howard said any victims who have not met with a Red Cross representative can call the organization’s offices 24 hours a day at 436-2600 or visit the offices today and Friday at the Municipal Complex at 1 Junkins Ave. in Portsmouth.