Flames poked through the roof of the business, also known as the Ipswich Paper Store, for two and a half hours after the fire was reported at 4:38 p.m. yesterday. Firefighters were busy with chainsaws and axes to knock a dozen holes in the roof, trying to extinguish the persistent flames. Apartments over the business were destroyed and an adjoining fashion and jewelry store, Shinings, suffered heavy smoke and water damage, Fire Chief Art Howe said.
Tracey Brand, who lives a few doors down, said she called 911 after she heard a popping noise and looked out to find fire in the trees behind the building. People going to look at the fire retreated from a sideways-traveling blast of flame, she said.
Howe said the devastation was apparently begun by some sort of trash fire. He couldn't say at deadline whether the trash was in a container or how close it was to the building. A storage room at the back of the building collapsed. Asked if the fire was suspicious, Howe said the blaze is under investigation.
"We've got the State Police investigating, two of our own, and two detectives with the Ipswich Police Department," he said.
Howe said one firefighter was sent to a hospital for an evaluation of his hand. No other injuries were reported.
John Allen, who runs the store that sells newspapers, lottery tickets and cigars, was reportedly in Maine with his two daughters when the fire began. Howe said they lived in one of the destroyed apartments.
Linda Grimes of Newburyport described John Allen as a "nice, hardworking person."
"I'm sure this town will take care of the Allens. That's the way this town works. I wouldn't be surprised if there was already a fund set up," she said, even as lights from an ambulance flickered through the Choate Bridge Pub where she was talking.
Grimes, 50, remembers her grandmother taking her to the store as a child and said it was an institution that inspired a John Updike story. The store's Web site said the business has been operating as a smoke shop and newsstand for more than 100 years.
Brenda Jacobson of Ipswich, who opened Shinings two years ago, said she noticed ambulances but thought someone had been run over. She didn't know her building was on fire until a police officer ordered her out of her store immediately. She wondered how much of her store was left and tried to remember how much insurance she had.