Four months after firefighters extinguished a two-part blaze on Pleasant Street, the city still doesn't know what, or who, started the fire.
The fire, called suspicious from the get-go, left the Schlichte-Johnstone Law offices a roofless skeleton, and scarred the Raymond Alger Gallery next door. But, as residents and others try to clean up what's left of the fire damage, Gloucester's public safety departments and state officials haven't moved much closer to pinning a cause on the fire.
Fire Chief Philip Dench said the Fire Department doesn't know what started it. Steven Mizzoni, police detective could not be reached for comment Monday, nor could Sheryl O'Donnell, investigator for the state Fire Marshal's office.
New Hampshire-based Municipal Resources Inc.'s after-action report, which has come down hard on a number of Gloucester firefighting issues, indicates that its investigators — led by Portsmouth, N.H., fire chief Christopher LeClaire — did not address the cause of the fire. But the company's report states that the fire clearly started in the first-floor law office, when a number of materials "simultaneously ignited" at around 6 a.m.
By 8 a.m. the Fire Department — with deputy chief and city emergency management director Miles Schlichte as incident commander — believed the blaze was knocked down. But by 8:30 a.m. the fire kicked back up again, and Schlicte called in what was, by then, a third alarm.
"I said, that's it, our building's gone," Jack Carter, Raymond Alger's assistant at the Gallery, recalled Monday.
From the nearby Cape Ann Museum, Carter said he watched the fire kick back up again. He said that, after the initial blaze, he had noticed smoke and heat in his attic wall. But, he said a firefighter with a thermal imaging camera said the smoke was "residual." Within minutes, the refueled fire was blazing.
The MRI report has delivered a scorching review of the Gloucester Fire Department's response to the Fire.
Among other issue, Municipal Resources took issue with:
The department's decision to change shifts after the initial fire was believed to have subsided.
The decision to use a positive pressure ventilating fan that MRI — citing "no good reason" for its implementation and direction — may have actually intensified the fire's second burst.
On scene crews' failure to pull in the ceiling after the initial burst. The department checked the ceiling with a thermal imaging camera.
The department's "obsolete" dispatch equipment, and dispatch training.
In the wake of the report, Mayor Carolyn Kirk has called for Fire Chief Phil Dench to organize a task force charged with implementing Municipal Resources' recommendations. She also called for each firefighter to obtained professional firefighter certification, and suggested firefighters and police take up joint dispatch.
But, as the city takes stock of the Fire Department, the tenants of 16 Pleasant St. and the owners and former occupants of 14 Pleasant St. continue to mull their next moves.
The building at 14 Pleasant St. sits boarded and roofless, gutted after the fire. Patricia Schlichte Johnstone and her husband, city assessor Gary Johnstone lived above the law offices. Now, they're looking to rebuild. Johnstone said they've prepared for demolition, but are waiting on National Grid to take care of a gas line that feeds both 14 and 16 Pleasant.
"We're quite anxious to get back in our own space," said Schlichte Johnstone, who is the fire deputy and incident commander's brother. "Gary and I want to get back to our own residence."
The law office run by Schlichte Johnston and her sister, Catherine Schlichte, has operated out of BankGloucester since the fire. Schlichte Johnstone said the firm didn't lose any active case files, and retrieved the soggy documents from a back corner room.
But, as the afternoon rains have poured into the 14 Pleasant St. building Monday, they also seeped into the Raymond Alger Gallery's basement.
The last time the water flooded in, Carter said, it took watercolor paintings and his reference library with it. He has now left a series of buckets under a corner of his basement that technically sits beneath a part of 14 Pleasant.
He said he's had no luck dealing with the Fire Department, Building Inspector, or the Health Department, about addressing concerns, and taking action to get the water to stop.
"Anything that's in the control of the insurance companies is out of the city's control," said James Duggan, Gloucester's cheif administrative officer.
Duggan said that, so long as the roof isn't there, water will get down into the basement. But, there's nothing more the city can do, he said.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.