By Susan Morse
Hampton Union, Tuesday, December 31, 2002
Eve fire in Hampton Beach, discuss their predicament from a motel
room in Portsmouth. [Staff photo by Deb Cram]
HAMPTON - When firefighters arrived at the scene of a Christmas Eve fire that heavily damaged an 11-unit apartment building and coffee shop on F Street, tenants Melissa Hooks and Timothy Nettles were inside and had no idea they were in danger.
"We got all dressed up to go to church," Hooks said Friday. This was about 6:45 p.m. The couple lived in an apartment in the back of the building on the first floor. Hooks smelled something burning, but thought it was something Nettles had on the stove. "I told him to stop cooking, you're burning it," she said. Nettles told her he was cooking nothing but they would be late for church so she'd better hurry. Nettles went out to start the car, he said, and that's when he saw firefighters battling a blaze out in front of the apartment building.
"I go out to warm up the car and the building's on fire," Nettles said. The couple heard no fire alarm, no smoke detector, they said.
Resident Dale Hodgkins said he was partying with another tenant named Louie in a room above the first floor deck a little after 6 p.m., when Louie said he began to smell smoke.
"We opened the kitchen window, opened the front door and smoke came rolling out of the second floor side," Hodgkins said. They both ran out.
No one was injured in the three-alarm blaze, which drew 75 firefighters from 12 area towns Christmas Eve.
The building is estimated to be a "two-thirds loss," said Hampton Fire Inspector Jon True.
The tenants, who made their home in the F Street apartments, lost everything. None has been allowed back into the apartments to salvage what's left of their belongings.
On Christmas, Hodgkins went to Northwood to visit his son, but with none of the intended Christmas presents.
"We sat in a motel room," Hooks said of her Christmas Day.
The fire caused heavy damage to the apartments on the second and third floor and moderate damage to the first floor, which houses a coffee shop and at least one apartment in back.
True said Monday that there were smoke detectors in the building and that it had been recently inspected.
The owner, identified as JR Russo Corp. of Andover, Mass. in a released statement from the Hampton Fire Department, recently bought the building.
"I know if it was not up to code, it was being brought up to code," True said.
All of the tenants interviewed said they believed the fire started in a trash pile on the ground under the stairs. This was the area of origin, True confirmed.
The most damage occurred to the third floor, which representatives for the owner who were at the scene Friday said "was a total loss." The representatives did not identify themselves.
The reason why the damage was most intense on the third floor could be due to "hidden voids" in the structure, True said, which would cause the fire to climb.
No one except the owner or representatives for the owner, are being allowed inside. Usually the owner hires someone who can go in and remove salvageable items, True said. The circa 1930s structure is unsafe for anyone to enter, he said.
All of the tenants interviewed said they had no financial means to tide them over until they get a new place. None put down a security deposit on their F Street apartments.
On Christmas Eve, volunteers for the Great Bay Chapter of the American Red Cross went to the fire to provide food and clothing to the victims. The Red Cross gave each $100 for clothing and $10 a day for food. The relief organization also donated clothing.
The Red Cross has also been paying for four of the families to stay in an area motel. The housing was to last through Monday. One family has since moved out and two received a day's extension, said a Red Cross spokesman.
Today is the deadline for Hooks and Nettles to leave the motel. The town of Hampton will give them a $600 voucher for rent, they said Friday. The problem is coming up with the security deposit, they said.
They paid $800 a month for their one-bedroom apartment on F Street, an amount that was expected to go up to $1,100 during the summer months, according to Hooks.
As of Monday, Hooks and Nettles had yet to find new lodging, but sounded more hopeful than when interviewed on Friday.
A woman at the Maranatha Assembly of God in Hampton - the church they once attended and were going to on Christmas Eve - has offered them a place to stay, Hooks said. Church members took up a collection for the couple this past Sunday, she said.
The couple moved here from Virginia two months ago.
Until recently, when he was laid off, Nettles worked for a local landscaper, he said. He and Hooks now get work through Labor Ready, a temporary placement agency in Greenland, he said.
Hodgkins works for Foss Manufacturing. He was living in an apartment on the third floor with Anna Locke, who was out of town with her daughter the night of the blaze.
Locke's daughter, Elizabeth Hamilton, lives next door to her mother's former F Street apartment at the Sea Dip Motel.
Hamilton said they returned home to find her mother's building burned out.
There are resources available to the families, said Paul Clark, director of Emergency Services for the Great Bay Chapter of the American Red Cross, but those who need help must come forward to get the services.
"When they know they are going to check out of the motel, that's when they start calling us," Clark said. "Statistically, it takes three days for the shock to hit. That's when they realize everything you own has been taken from you. The first three days are the worst."
Check-out time is a wake-up call, according to Clark.
"Now we can help them get back on track again," he said. "They really need to get involved in the healing process."
Loans for a security deposit, donated furniture and other aid is available, he said. The Red Cross is not able to pass along money donated to the victims, he said, but the agency can connect those wishing to make a donation and those needing it. For more information, call the Red Cross Great Bay Chapter at 436-2600.