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.
"I'm devastated," she said. "On Friday the 13th."
Mark Macklin, who closed his Stone Soup Cafe on the corner of Central Street after the fire broke out, said the damage could have been worse.
"The flames were pretty big for a while," he said. "... Thank God we had this westerly wind, and that building is brick."
The building downwind from the newsstand is set apart. The wind blew the fire and smoke away from three connected wooden buildings. The gentle breeze left thick, yellow smoke drifting across Central Street, also Route 1A.
Charlie Vose, vice chairman of disaster services for the Northeastern Massachusetts chapter of the American Red Cross, said three families were displaced by the fire. The agency was working with one couple from above the newsstand and expected to help the Allens when they returned. Another neighbor, whose apartment was farther away, planned to spend the weekend with a relative while the smoke aired out of her apartment.
The two families from above the newsstand will get hotels this weekend, plus clothing and food. They didn't get much from their homes.
"The firefighters did get in and get some possessions tonight," Vose said.
Howe said the age of the building may have made it more difficult to extinguish the fire. Old buildings are sometimes renovated and re-renovated, with extra layers of walls and ceilings for fires to hide behind. He didn't know if that was a factor last night.
The Ipswich assessor's office said the building dates to about 1800.
Firefighters from Ipswich, Hamilton, Rowley, Essex and Topsfield helped, while the private Rehab 5 helped firefighters recover.
Peggy Trefrey, who comes from family of firefighters and cops and worked as a fire dispatcher in three local towns, looked out on the spectators and said people seemed fascinated by tragedy.
"It never ever would surprise me to see so many people," she said.
Sadness marked many faces as people watched the institution be ravaged.
"It's a good local spot there," Macklin said.
Jacobson said this isn't the first time tragedy struck downtown.
"It's a terrible thing, because five businesses were burned down last year around the corner and we had the floods," she said.