Last week I wrote about the 1904 fire where Chester Hardware is today. Many will remember the Nov. 18, 1971 explosion at this same location:
“It was a miracle that no one was killed,” said Chester Fire Chief Albert Damore. He echoed everyone’s thoughts as men from his department helped clean up the aftermath of a pre-dawn fire, touched off by a propane gas explosion that leveled a commercial block and heavily damaged surrounding homes.
Damage from the explosion was not contained to the immediate area, but spread for a half-mile around, as hundreds of windows shattered from the force of the blast. The total damage was estimated at several hundred thousand dollars. The Andover-Chester Elementary School, located a scant 500 yards from the fire, sustained an estimated $5,000 in glass damage, plus the possible buckling of a brick wall.
According to State Police Detective Sgt. Joseph Cioffi, the 4:34 a.m. explosion was the result of a leak in a tank of liquid propane gas. The tank was one of many loaded on a truck and stored in the gas station for the night. The fire, fed from the other propane tanks as they exploded in the heat, quickly spread through the debris scattered by the blast. Before the firemen arrived, the flames had quickly moved in both directions, engulfing the gas station and the Monier LP Gas Store on one side.
Gould’s Market, three apartments, a truck, and a car in the lot were destroyed. In all, the fire leveled about 100 yards of buildings fronting Route 11, located just a block north of the junction with Route 103. The fire was on the outskirts of the main business section. Six houses surrounding the fire had all their windows facing the scene blown out. One sustained fire damage around the eaves.
Vermont Bank and Trust Co., located across from the blaze, lost all its front windows. The bank alarm, set off when the windows shattered, enabled police to pin point the time of the blast to 4:34 a.m. Ten people were homeless after the fire. They all escaped unaided from the buildings, but two were taken to Springfield Hospital, where they were treated for lacerations and then released. Walter Carter, 62, and Ernest Nadeau Jr, 20, were injured. They had been cut by the flying glass or the glass scattered on the ground.
Monier described the blast, which woke him up in his house a few yards down the street, as sounding like a big jet plane that had crashed and blown up. “My wife went to the window and looked up the street,” Monier said. “’My God,’ she told me, ‘it’s up by the store.’ When I got there, I figured the people must be gone in both buildings. Everything was burning.” Monier and his bookkeeper, whom he described as his right hand, poked quietly through the blackened, steaming wreckage this morning, looking for the company’s records.
They didn’t hold out much hope for finding them. “We just put in a whole new bookkeeping system last week,” Monier said, “and now it’s all lost.” Chief Damore, who lives just behind the fire area, described the blast as an explosion like a jet plane that had crashed, a rumble, and then a big boom. “I came around the corner and the whole thing was on fire. All three places were going and there was fire all over the street. I couldn’t imagine anyone getting out alive,” Damore said. The chief added that when he returned with the fire equipment he couldn’t get through to the other side of the fire because the burning debris was piled two feet deep blocking the street.
Furthermore, the heat was rupturing other propane tanks in the building and they were exploding one at a time. “We could only work from this side,” the chief explained, “and we had to wait for Springfield to arrive to get at the other side.” In all, ten departments responded: Westminster, Rockingham, Walpole, N. H., North Walpole, N. H., Springfield, Chester, Cavendish, Ludlow, Bellows Falls, and Saxtons River. Saxtons River was turned back and sent to cover the Rockingham station. Many other departments responded to cover empty fire stations. The fire was finally under control after an hour.
The street was cleared with a bulldozer and dump trucks. Vermont Highway Department trucks carted off much of the debris scattered through the area. The street remained cordoned off this morning while clean up operations continued.
The first meeting of Chester Historical Society is Thursday March 24, upstairs of Chester Town Hall at 7pm. We will have an extensive slideshow of old Vermont photos. Chester and other Vermont towns will be included. Ever see a two-headed calf? All are invited, whether members or not.