By Tracey Dewhurst
Seacoast Scene, Wednesday, May 19, 2010
[The following article is courtesy of the Seacoast Scene
HAMPTON -- Ask 22 year veteran of the Hampton Fire Department, John Stevens, why he became a fireman and he mentions one name: Kevin Lemoine. Don't know him? John will hand you an article from the Manchester Union Leader about Kevin's most recent job as the Fire Chief in Brentwood, New Hampshire, a job he performs from a motorized wheelchair due to the Multiple Sclerosis that caused him to retire from the Hampton Fire Department after 22 years in 2005.
"You never heard him complain once about his disability," Stevens says. "He helped me push myself beyond any challenge I've had to face. He's an inspiration."
Forty six year old Stevens got to know the older Lemoine as a volunteer fire fighter in Brentwood, where Stevens went to high school and still lives. They worked together at the Durham, New Hampshire Fire Department and both ended up coming to the Hampton Fire Department until Lemoine's disability diverted his career path. He worked as a dispatcher for awhile before he retired from Hampton and continues to inspire Stevens with his "professionalism and drive" as the Brentwood Chief.
The lead man on the first fire engine to respond to the Surf Hotel fire on February 25th, John Stevens, was skilled enough to recognize the dangerous scope of that fire within a few minutes of arriving on the scene with Fire Fighters Jason Newman and Don Thibeault. The wind was roaring close to 90 miles an hour that night and at 11:30 all eight men on duty were busy responding to calls. There was an electrical fire due to a faulty sump pump in a flooded basement on Winnacunnet Road and the firemen there were stuck waiting for the power company to come, keeping an eye on the fire that kept reigniting. Stevens' engine was at North Beach tending to a downed power line on Boar's Head, when they got a call of a tripped alarm at 275 Ocean Boulevard, the Surf Hotel.
John McKeon, the owner of the Hotel arrived before the firemen and let them into the lobby where they smelled smoke. The power had gone out and Stevens and Newman walked through the back door into a pitch black alley behind the hotel. When the wind kicked up, the thick smoke coming out of the Happy Hampton , Arcade next door filled the area and all they could see were each other's flashlights. They could hear the fire roaring like a freight train, cracking and popping. Stevens made the calk() get out of the alley. Neither of them had ever been in that space before and had to follow a wall, feeling with their hands to get out to A Street. With Don Thibeault manning the truck, it was just Stevens and Newman there.
"The wind blew the fire everywhere. It looked like a giant blowtorch," Newman recalls.
Stevens realized at that point that this was going to be a major fire and got a supply line of water started from A Street to contain the blaze. In ten minutes the flames had consumed the entire rear of the building and began racing south.
"With no immediate resources, the wind speed and the volume of fire, all we could do was protect it from spreading from the block of origin," according to Stevens.
All the surrounding communities were occupied with storm emergencies of their own and the Hampton guys were busy responding to thirty other emergencies that night. Most of the town of Hampton had lost power and the beach fire station was without communications since the generator there failed to start. Captain Dave Lang was off duty but came in when he sensed a potential problem. He called Bayring, the telecommunications provider for the Station and had all the 911 calls transferred to dispatcher Cassie Bridle's cell phone until they could get a backup system up and running. Stevens and Newman agree they were fortunate Lang had the foresight to get the phones operational before the fire had even started.
Eventually communities as far as Laconia, Gilmanton and Meredith arrived to help douse over a million gallons of water on what became a five alarm blaze. The smoke was so thick that some of the engine drivers from out of town lost their way coming on to the beach, ending up on Jones Avenue or Island Path instead of finding their way to Ashworth Avenue, behind the fire that consumed the Happy Hampton Arcade, the Surf and Mrs. Mitchells Gift Shop on Ocean Boulevard.
Luckily it was off season and the challenges of dealing with beach traffic and a hotel full of guests weren't part of the crisis that night. Partially due to Stevens' levelheaded demeanor, there wasn't one casualty or serious injury resulting from the fire. "He has been around awhile. A lot of guys look up to him for his calm decision-making," Jason Newman says. "I'm glad I was with Lieutenant Stevens. The smoke came bearing down on us so quick. He made an absolute correct decision to get out of that alleyway."
It looks like John Stevens is providing a source of respect and inspiration for the newer Fire Fighters in Hampton that he found in Kevin Lemoine. Passing down that tradition can only keep the professionalism that the Department showed, during one of the biggest fires Hampton has ever seen, going strong.