, Gloucester, MA

December 4, 2007

Plum Street fire leaves 8 without home; Dog alerts man who wakes others

By Kristen Grieco , Staff writer

A fire on Plum Street early yesterday morning left eight family members ranging in age from 2 to 61 without a home, but they all escaped harm, thanks in part to a warning from their dog, Simba.

The slow-burning fire at 12 Plum St. in East Gloucester, which took two crews of Gloucester firefighters about four hours to fight, burned the underpinnings of the century-old, single-family home's slate roof, causing it to collapse. Police and fire officials said yesterday they believed the fire was an accident, likely originating with burning embers in a first-floor fireplace.

One firefighter was injured in the blaze when a piece of the slate roof fell on him as he stood on an exterior staircase. He was treated at Addison Gilbert Hospital for minor injuries and released yesterday. A neighboring family was also evacuated for fear that heavy slabs from the roof would cause injury.

According to the police report, resident Christopher Kippen, 36, was alerted to the fire after waking up to his dog "freaking out" in his third-floor bedroom around 3 a.m. He emerged from his room to see and smell smoke in the hallway. He woke his cousin, Michael Hinchey, 35, who was asleep in another bedroom on the floor.

Hinchey's room had filled with smoke, and when the two looked out the window, they could see fire burning on the side of the house.

Hinchey and Kippen went through the house, yelling and waking the other six people, including three children, asleep on the second floor. All eight were able to leave the house safely. Once outside, Kippen called 911, according to the statement he gave police.

When firefighters arrived around 3:15 a.m., they saw fire burning from a hole in the right side of the house, said fire Chief Barry McKay. They also saw smoke coming from the home's eaves, indicating that the flames had spread to the attic.

Firefighters went into the house and started pulling out pieces of the walls around the fireplace, working their way up the wall to knock the fire down on each floor, McKay said. The space on top of the fireplace was completely open into the attic, according to McKay, allowing the flames to shoot up to the top of the home.

Firefighters hit a snag when they attempted to head to the third floor and attic to continue knocking down the spreading fire. They climbed an interior staircase, only to find it had been blocked off. The only access to the third-floor bedrooms was through exterior stairs, they discovered.

When they reached the third-floor bedrooms where Kippen and Hinchey had been sleeping, firefighters began to knock through the ceiling into the attic space above, where the fire was most intense. McKay said that the crew began "aggressive" interior firefighting, destroying the ceiling until they found flames, and then extinguishing them.

McKay said he and his crew decided to pull firefighters out of the attic once it became clear that the blaze was so intense, the roof would eventually collapse. While pieces of the roof had fallen on firefighters already, the entire thing caved in about 20 minutes after the crew left the attic, McKay said.

Fighting the blaze from the exterior with aerial ladders and hoses, firefighters finally extinguished the flames around 7:30 a.m., according to the police report.

Police and fire officials investigated the cause of the blaze yesterday, and by the afternoon had determined that it was not suspicious. Fire officials said they believed the fire had started in a first-floor fireplace, where Andrew Kippen, one of the residents, had lit a fire around 6 p.m.

According to statements the family gave police, Andrew Kippen, 39, fell asleep on the couch by the fire, waking around midnight and noticing that the fire had burned down to embers. Kippen told officials he smelled smoke but assumed it was the smoldering fire and went to bed on the second floor, where his wife, Melissa, and their three children between the ages of 2 and 17, as well as his father, Arthur, were already asleep.

Fire officials believe the fire started in the space behind the first-floor fireplace where Andrew Kippen had lit the fire, when flames escaped through cracks in the fireplace walls. They said the fire burned slowly up into the interior enclosed space in the walls above the fireplace, eventually burning in the attic for a substantial time without anyone noticing.

The roof of the home is completely gone, and Deputy Chief Miles Schlicte said that extensive water damage in the house would also affect its electrical system and furnace. He said it would be a "substantial" amount of time before the family could move back in.

He said the eight family members were provided with emergency shelter at the Vista Motel for two nights while they set up a permanent place to stay.

Fire officials spent much of the afternoon yesterday helping the family try to recover belongings from the six-bedroom home, which Schlicte said contained many antiques and family heirlooms. Fire officials also tried to drain water and pump the cellar. He called the recovery efforts "pretty successful."

Schlicte said that all the pets in the house, including Simba, were uninjured.