By Alan Pollock
The Cape Cod Chronicle
SOUTH HARWICH, Mass. — Surveying the charred rubble that once was the 20-unit "port building" of the Stone Horse Motel, Fire Chief Norman Clarke, Jr., knows that it could've been much worse.
"We could've had three or four structures involved with this," he said, shaking his head. No one was injured. As it was, the fire that lit up the South Harwich sky early Sunday morning was the largest blaze the chief has seen in at least two decades. And investigators say its origin is suspicious.
A passerby noticed fire coming from the abandoned motel building at 872 Route 28 just before 1:30 a.m., and the first arriving firefighters saw flames in the two firstfloor units in the center of the building, which had spread to the two units above and began to travel the length of the nearly 200-foot-long building through an open attic. From his position on Old County Road, Clarke sounded the second alarm shortly after arrival.
"I knew I was going to lose the building when I pulled up," Clarke said. Deputy Fire Chief Kent Farrenkopf took up a position on the Route 28 side of the building and, seeing the wind-whipped fire spreading rapidly, sounded a third alarm a few minutes later. Firefighters from six additional towns were called to the scene, along with the American Red Cross disaster team.
The port building faces Old County Road, and is one of five buildings on the Stone Horse Motel property.
Heat from the blaze threatened two other large buildings on the property, and firebrands floated across Route 28, jeopardizing several houses there.
Firefighters were hampered by a lack of water pressure (see sidebar) and near-freezing temperatures that made the roads and equipment slippery. With the roof starting to collapse, Clarke ordered an exterior attack.
"No one was going to go into this building," he said. The decision was a weighty one. "The police have had some issues with vagrants in these buildings," and while the property owner had some windows and doors boarded up, there was a possibility that one or more people were inside to get warm. Given the state of the fire at that point, if there were people inside the hotel when firefighters arrived, "they were already gone," Clarke said.
Crews managed to contain the fire to that building, and spent hours wetting down the rubble as an excavator tore the structure down. As part of the investigation into the cause of the fire, a cadaver-sniffing dog was brought to
the scene and found no evidence that people had perished in the blaze. Another police dog checked for the presence of accelerants that might have been used to start the fire, but found no evidence, possibly because of the degree of damage and the duration of the fire, Clarke said.
Built in 1965, the building was used for guests of the seasonal Stone Horse Motel; it was eventually purchased by the J.R. Fennell Realty Trust, which used it as a seasonal dormitory for employees of the Wychmere Harbor Club. The property went through several additional changes of ownership before being purchased by Douglas Levings, who planned to renovate the port building to create a "sober house" for people recovering from substance abuse. That plan drew the ire of neighbors, and Levings allowed the bank to foreclose on the property. The current owners, the Growth Companies of Chestnut Hill, Mass., purchased the property for $1 million at a foreclosure auction in 2009. The president of that real estate firm, Fredrick Margolis, received a special permit to convert the entire 41-unit motel to 20 condominium units. His plan called for the port building to be demolished and rebuilt in a slightly different location.
Though the plans were approved in August 2010, the redevelopment project was never started. The port building has been unoccupied for at least four years.
There is an active investigation into the cause of the blaze, and the state fire marshal's office has posted a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist. The point of origin seems to have been one of the units in the center of the building.
Clarke said investigators are checking to see whether the fire is linked to a series of around 10 suspicious fires in southeast Massachusetts, including a barn fire in Sandwich the night before the Stone Horse fire. All of the blazes involved vacant homes, garages or other empty buildings.
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