By Brian Dekoning
Foster's Daily Democrat Staff Writer
HAMPTON — As hundreds watched a devastating fire rip through three beach-front buildings Wednesday, witnesses who were first on the scene said the blaze appeared minor just an hour earlier.
Photo right: Hundreds of onlookers watch as more than 200 firefighters from 12 communities battle for hours to get the five-alarm blaze on Ocean Boulevard under control. (Democrat photo — Tuohy)
"I thought a Poland Springs bottle could put it out," 19-year-old Danielle Neddy said while more than 200 firefighters battled the blaze. "It was crazy. I took ten steps and in just that time it was out of control."
Ms. Neddy, an employee at Cecile’s Gift Shop, said she was among the first to see the fire when it began on a set of stairs between The Old Salt Eating and Drinking Place and the Beach Walk building, home to Lexie’s Pizzaria and Cecile’s at 85 Ocean Blvd.
"A customer came into our store and said there was a small fire outside," Bob King, Cecile’s manager, said. "I thought we could put it out with a bucket of water."
Fed by strong winds, the blaze began to spread between the two buildings, King said. He said he and a Lexie’s Pizzaria employee each grabbed fire extinguishers a little after 2 p.m. and tried to put out the blaze. Old Salt owner Joe Higgins grabbed a garden hose.
"I saw it shoot right up the stairs," King said, "And all I could do was call 911."
At 3:15 p.m. as state police cleared the parking lot across the street from the fire, smoke billowed at least one hundred feet into the sky and flames spurted from the upper windows of the buildings.
Ray Rumplick and his wife Dianne, vacationing from Westfield, Mass., explained how they saw the fire begin.
"We were walking down the street and an older couple saw the fire behind that stairwell of the Old Salt and the pizza place," Rumplick said. "It was maybe 2:15 or 2:30 (p.m.). The couple yelled to the guy in the pizza place."
Rumplick said the blaze had engulfed the Old Salt, the Beach Walk and the Springfield Motor Lodge by the time firefighters arrived.
"It didn’t take long to spread," Rumplick said. "In ten minutes, all three were going."
At least five businesses were destroyed including the Old Salt, Lexie’s Pizzaria, Cecile’s, the Springfield Motor Lodge and a cafe.
Three news helicopters circled the area above the fire.
Jimmy Preston, who owns the Beach Walk building with his brother, Bob Preston, Jr., and father, former state Sen. Bob Preston, said six apartments on the top floor of the Beach Walk building had also been destroyed. Higgins said three apartments above the Old Salt were lost.
The Old Salt and the Beach Walk were completely destroyed while damage to the Springfield Motor Lodge was severe, Exeter Fire Chief John Carbonneau said.
Joan Freely, owner of the Lobster Den at 99 Ocean Blvd. said Wednesday’s fire was the worst fire she’d seen in 37 years on the beach.
"I’m just amazed it happened so quickly," Ms. Freely said as she watched from her porch. "We saw this big black billow of smoke within two minutes after the first fire engine arrived and you could see flames just shooting up the front stairs of the Beach Walk."
Hampton Deputy Fire Chief Tony Chouinard, who was the commanding officer at the scene, said it was the worst fire the town had seen in at least 40 years.
The Higgins family, who have owned the Old Salt for more than 25 years, comforted one another as they watched the fire from the corner of K Street and Ocean Boulevard in front of Guido Murphy’s.
"It’s my family business," Joe Higgins said, "and look at it now. I really don’t want to talk to anyone right now."
"The thing to think about right now," Jimmy Preston said, "is all the people who are going to be affected by this. You’ve got dozens of employees at the Old Salt, bartenders, cooks, you name it. Hundreds of guests who planned to stay at the Springfield this summer. All three buildings make their money in the next ten weeks. We’re talking about three relative institutions on this beach."
‘We had 85 percent of our bookings for the summer," Preston said. "Sixty-plus families. We’ve already got people calling us who had reservations and who are watching this on TV right now."