NASHUA - With the roof burned off and soot-covered debris strewn about, fire investigators went about their work piecing together a monumental jigsaw puzzle.
They carried metal panels and other materials outside and followed dozens of other investigative steps to determine the cause of a five-alarm fire that destroyed a three-story downtown building Monday and left 36 people homeless.
And although it wouldn't provide any clues, fire investigators also tried to capture a cat. The natty-looking feline suddenly appeared in the 126 Vine St. building Tuesday morning, and could have spent the previous night hiding there.
The cat bolted outside and eluded the reach of a Nashua Fire Rescue firefighter. Fire Marshal Richard Wood later sat on a sidewalk and called the feline, but the animal stayed clear.
While it would have been nice to return the animal to its owners, cat-catching was not Wood's primary purpose there.
Wood and his team busied themselves trying to pinpoint the cause and origin of the blaze, just as it were any other fire scene, despite the size of the building and the large scope of destruction.
"It's not 'CSI' quick, but it has the same level of methodical study," Wood said, comparing the investigative work seen on the popular television series with the efforts of his crew.
And not that Wood was suggesting the five-alarm blaze is suspicious. It was too early in the investigation Tuesday to determine a cause, he said.
Investigators followed the pattern they do at any scene, Wood said.
They started looking at the least damaged area - in this building, it was an apartment that was almost untouched by smoke and fire - and moved to the most damaged section, he said. That narrowed their focus to the south side of the first floor, he said.
"We're trying to work through how it started, where it traveled - but we do it in reverse," Wood said.
The investigation called for Wood's team to match what they know to clues found at the scene, he said.
The day before, Wood couldn't even enter the building. The massive fire kept firefighters in a "defensive mode of attack" for most of the three hours that it burned.
Firefighters had to work at the blaze from outside because of the intensity of flames, thickness of smoke and the possibility the building might collapse, fire officials said.
Fire Chief Brian Morrissey called it one of the "most significant" fires Nashua has seen in the past decade.
The fire burned for more than three hours and produced plumes of black smoke that covered Vine and Lake streets below and spread so high and far in the sky that people in surrounding towns could see it.
None of the 36 people who lived there were injured. Most were at work, and those who were home managed to escape, either on their own or with the help of firefighters.
When the first crews from Lake Street and Crown Hill fire stations arrived around 9 a.m., Assistant Fire Chief Keith Anderson said, they conducted a building check and evacuated all remaining tenants.
It became quickly apparent that the fire "was beyond our control," Anderson said. It spread to the second floor and then the third, hiding in ceilings, chimney vents and any openings of the balloon-constructed structure, he said.
"At some point, we thought we had it more contained outside, and we sent men inside to contain the fire," Anderson said. But it soon seemed obvious they were in danger, so fire crews on the ground blew a loud horn to warn the firefighters to evacuate, he said. They also heard the command over their two-way radios.
Four ladder trucks situated around the building allowed firefighters to attack the blaze from above.
Aside from hoses, firefighters also used a device called a deck gun, Anderson said. The gun can pump up to 2,000 gallons of water per minute, according to fire industry sources.
Anderson, a 32-year veteran of Nashua Fire Rescue, said it was one of the largest fires he has fought. The department used all of its personnel and resources and needed the help of firefighters from several other towns, he said.
This article appears in the January 30 2009 issue of New Hampshire Business Review