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Artifacts unscathed after museum fire

Discarded cigarette on a nearby dock is believed to be the cause of Connecticut River Museum inferno

By the time responders arrived, the fire had spread from under the dock to up the building facade.

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When Jerry Roberts saw flames crawling up the side of the Essex, Conn.-based Connecticut River Museum on Aug. 11, he was sure the priceless artifacts inside would be destroyed.

But the volunteer firefighters of Essex Fire Engine Co. No. 1 responded quickly and managed to save every item in the three-story structure.

"I was astonished," says Roberts, the museum's executive director. "We've got water damage and quite a bit of fire damage to the outside walls and the roof, but none of the collection was damaged or destroyed. The fire department did an amazing job."

The museum, located on the banks of the Connecticut River, chronicles the history of the famed river with more than 100 historical artifacts on display.

At 9:30 p.m., Essex Fire Engine Co. No. 1 got a call from witnesses who saw the fire break out at the base of the dock. Volunteer fire chief Paul Fazzino says the firefighters arrived in minutes and were soon joined by fire departments from Guilford, Old Saybrook, Deep River and Westbrook.

By the time the responders arrived, the fire, which had started under the dock, was burning up the side of the building. One team cut open the dock area to get to the base of the fire so it wouldn't encroach on the underside of the building. Another group of firefighters forced the doors of the museum open to search for fire inside and put "salvage covers," heavy waterproof tarps, over the artifacts to protect them.

Extinguishing hard-to-reach spots under the shingles kept fire crews working deep into the night.

"We really didn't have to move anything out," says Fazzino. "It looked like a pretty spectacular fire, but it was mostly contained to the outside wall of the building and the roof area."

Fazzino says there were three fireboats on the scene. They were joined by fire trucks and all were pumping water from the river.

"Once [the fire] licks the edge of a roof, it gets between the shingles themselves and then to the plywood between the shingles," says Fazzino. "We had our new ladder truck and our older ladder truck both working to reach. It was pretty labor intensive to get up there and tear the roofing off."

Fazzino says it took about two hours to extinguish the fire.

"We thought we were losing dozens of artifacts and paintings," says Roberts, who arrived shortly after 9:30 p.m. "I know where every one of them is so I was mentally ticking off what was disappearing."

The blackened and blistered walls of the museum building built in 1878 are the reminder of the devastation that could have been.

"A lot of people asked us what was the most important and cherished artifact we were concerned about and the answer is pretty easy ... this building," says Jerry Roberts. "Everyone expects us to be bummed out and glum right now, but we are quite elated because we thought we saw this building burning down."

The fire department has ruled out arson, but suspects it was a lit cigarette that was flicked under the dock. Roberts says a cigarette also caused a small fire on the same portion of the dock in summer 2008, but it was caught before it became dangerous.

"We will certainly be making the dock non-smoking," says Roberts. "We are talking to our insurance [carrier] to what extent we can replace this section of the dock with brand-new fireproof wood."

Roberts says the topside of the dock's wood is only 20 to 30 years old, but the pilings and footings underneath are more than 100 years old.

The morning was the time to assess the damage.

Roberts is optimistic the museum will be opening up the first two floors to the public in a matter of weeks. Artifacts will be moved temporarily from the main building to the museum's boathouse, which was unaffected by the fire, in order to clean them. River cruises aboard the Mary E will operate as scheduled.

A fire fund has been established for expenses not covered by insurance. Donations in the form of a check can be made out to "Connecticut River Museum Fire Fund" and mailed to 67 Main Street, Essex, Conn., 06426.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.