Officer spotted fire, helped clear building
Investigators looking into the cause of a massive fire in Amherst last week say they have determined where it started, but have been unable to pin down a cause, and an off-duty police officer played a role in clearing people from the building.
Sean Plummer, of the state fire marshal’s office, said last week that the fire that destroyed two businesses on Route 101A originated near the right rear portion of the building.
The multi-alarm fire at Amherst Kayak & Canoe and Sundance Spas brought firefighters from several towns to contain the wind-whipped blaze.
"It was like a blowtorch," Plummer said. "The winds were terrible."
The fire destroyed the building, located close to the traffic-heavy road. A large amount of material from the building had been piled up and a fence surrounded the site after investigators worked.
Plummer said investigators from the state and Amherst Fire Department "went through as much debris as we could. We were unable to pinpoint a point of origin. If we can’t pinpoint it, we can’t come up with a cause."
John Murphy, an off-duty Nashua police master patrolman, was driving home from a trip to pick up tools at The Home Depot when he spotted smoke in the area.
He said at first he thought it might be someone burning trash or pallets, but when he got a closer look, he realized it was "too smoky and too big to be just anything."
The U.S. Navy reservist with 32 years of military service said he drove past the buildings, turned around, and drove over the median and in front of the spa portion of the business.
"I could see the size of the flames, and it definitely wasn’t a controlled fire," Murphy said.
At the time, he said, the fire "was just barely touching the building. This fire moved fast; unbelievably fast."
Murphy said he pulled out his phone and hit the number for the Milford police, which he had programmed in the device, to request emergency responders to the scene.
The first building he went to was dark and the doors were locked, he said.
"I moved up past the center section, the display area, in the main portion of the building," Murphy said. "It was open, and I went in."
Murphy said he began shouting. He couldn’t smell smoke, and he attributes that to the wind blowing it and keeping it from being detected.
"Nobody answered at first," Murphy said. "It turns out two people were both in back offices. They came out and said, ‘What’s up?’
"Your building’s on fire. You need to get out," Murphy told them.
As Murphy began trying to coax people out of the building, he said, "I could see flames coming out the far wall." One of the people he was trying to evacuate made repeated attempts to grab company records and a computer.
Murphy said he eventually had to take the man by his arms and be more insistent in leaving the building.
"I finally got him to leave," Murphy said.
In the short time it took to get him to exit, Murphy said, "The entire far wall was covered in flames. It was moving that fast."
Murphy said he made sure there was no one left inside and stayed on the scene to keep people out of the parking lot until firefighters arrived.
"Within 10 minutes, the end and center (of the building) were in flames," Murphy said. "There was a very strong wind. Flames just started tearing right through the place. It was incredibly fast."
Plummer said the wind was blowing away from the building toward trash containers, a fence and landscaping.
"It wouldn’t be a Dumpster fire," he said.
The rubber roof of Hendrix Molded Products, located next door and separated by a stretch of pavement, received damage.
Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.