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Pittsfield Warehouse Goes Up in Flames

By Andy McKeever & Tammy Daniels
iBerkshires Staff

Firefighters quickly went on the defensive trying to contain the fire. 
Updated: Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016 at 11:53 a.m. 
 
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The large fire at the former J.B. Paper warehouse on Monday night may have been caused by squatters or intentionally lit. 
 
Deputy Chief Daniel Garner said on Tuesday that there was no electrical running to the building and gas had been shut off. He said the cause was likely accidental arson or arson.
 
"We can rule out electrical. The electrical that serves this building has been shut off for years. Nobody has any right to be here other than the property owner and they were nowhere near this place. It is either accidental by a squatter or trespasser making a fire inside, doing who knows what. Or it is a malicious intent to start a fire with an open flame. It is either accidental arson or arson," Garner said.
 
Garner said securing the abandoned factory on Elmvale Place has been a challenge over the years. On multiple occasions Police and Fire have attempted to keep up with ensuring the building was secure but only so much could be done to prevent trespassing. 
 
"Buildings are at their most dangerous for fire personnel and the general public when they are being constructed, being demolished, or when they are abandoned. This is not a vacant building because a vacant building is still being maintained to some capacity. This is a condemned, abandoned building, a neglected building. There are various hazards within the building itself. There are unstable walls. It's been noted before that there is unstable flooring inside. It is a derelict property," Garner said. 
 
"Another potential problem is the security of this building. We make a couple trips to this site, monthly, years, but it so hard to keep up with security. Between us, the Fire Department and Police, we try to make sure it is buttoned up and secure but squatters get in here, trespassers who are using it for whatever illicit means."
 
It isn't known if somebody was in the building or not, Garner said, because firefighters have only recently been able to access the structure. As of 10 a.m., some 14 hours after the department received the call, the fire was still smoldering and engine companies continued to douse the building with water. 
 
While the call may have came in at 8 p.m., Garner says the blaze was going well before then. 
 
"It is so far set off of a main thoroughfare, Wahconah Street, and even though you have the Dower Square projects over here, it can burn unchecked for sometime. Especially at 8 o'clock. The sun is down, it is dark, nobody will see smoke for quite some time. The fire had time to grow and intensify. Timeline-wise, it could have started somewhere after 7 o'clock. It could have been a cigarette, it is so much speculation, but it could have been a cigarette smoldering since 5 o'clock last evening and something kicks off," Garner said.
 
"It was heavy fire when we got here so that means it had been burning for quite some time, unless we find multiple points of origin or an accelerant. There are some many plausible scenarios."
 
The flames were heavy when firefighters arrived. Deputy Chief Matthew Noyes, the incident commander, said there was no attempt to fight the fire internally and quickly switched to a defensive attack — going after it from the perimeter instead of conducting searches or interior attacks.
 
"We realized immediately that it had spread rapidly prior to our arrival," he said, adding, "The fire was ahead of us right from the get-go ... Within 10 minutes it had broken through the roof in one spot."
 
Firefighters quickly faced trouble accessing water and the fire grew to a three-alarm. By 9:30 the roofs began to collapse.
 
"Even though we have pre-planned this building for a number of years now and even though we have a branch of the Housatonic here, drafting was not an option due to access to the river and it is so low this year. We had limited hydrant capability. The city Water Department was able to free up a larger volume of water by increasing the volume and the pressure in the Wahconah Street area. At one point we had a shuttle operation with Lanesborough and I believe Cheshire tanker shuttles to get more water to the scene," Garner said.
 
At least seven fire companies helped in combating what Garner said was the biggest fire he's seen in 19 years on the department. Pittsfield, Dalton, Lenox, Richmond, Cheshire, Lanesborough and Hinsdale all arrived on scene - mostly tankers used to shuttle in water — while Adams and Lanesborough covered the Pittsfield station.
 
"Overall operating on this fireground was our full contingent of on-duty personnel, 18 members. Our backup ladder truck has been out of service for quite some time so we had Dalton's ladder 1 respond right to the scene so we had two ladder trucks operating. We back-filled with a majority of our off-duty firefighters. Apparatus and resourcewise, we needed extra fire engines and another ladder truck to protect the city while we we fighting this fire," Garner said.
 
"We had Adams' Ladder 1 at our headquarters; we had an engine company from Lanesborough; we had an engine company from Lee; we had an engine company from Dalton."
 
With the tankers and extra volume from the hydrants, the department had enough to combat it over night. Two ladder-truck towers — one set up by Pittsfield and the other by Dalton — were attempting to "surround and drown" the flames from above on one side and hoses are also being sprayed on the other side to contain the conflagration. Lines were laid all the way down Elmvale Place from Wahconah Street as well as from a hydrant at Pine Cone Hill, where a gate was opened to allow access to that end of Elmvale.
 
"Everyone on the scene is handling things professionally," Noyes said around 10 p.m. on Monday. "We're getting a lot of out-of-town help  ... They're doing a great job."
 
The flames were so high, they turned the sky orange and lit up the neighborhood. Crowds gathered in the Pine Cone Hill parking lot and on Wahconah street. The glow could be seen for miles. Wahconah Street was closed to through-traffic from Elmvale to Peck's Road. 
 
There are at least six mills or warehouse buildings along Elmvale Place, a small road off Wahconah street and next to Pittsfield Cemetery. The paper company is the last building on the street.
 
"It's a building that's been vacant for years," Noyes said. "We've known this has been coming for years. ... We've been out here a bunch of times to pre-plan it."
 

On Tuesday morning firefighters were still on scene dousing the building with water as the timber construction continued to smolder. 
Garner said every department pre-plans for the worse at what he calls "target hazards." The department had visited the site numerous times to look at access and utilities to have plans in place to respond. 
 
According to documents on file at the Registry of Deeds, the building is held by BM Realty Co., operating as J.B. Paper Co., which lists the late Gerald Binder as principal. Binder had run the paper company, his family business, for more than 50 years. He died in 2009.
 
The building was constructed in 1916. Garner said early reports say the building is not insured. 
 
By midnight, Garner said the fire was under control — though still burning — and the attack was downgraded. The sprawling two-story building broke into three sections. Garner said firefighters struggled with access to the farther building from the road but that fire is smoldering out on its own.
 
Garner said he doesn't believe there were any hazardous material in the building — which he described as a "ordinary to heavy timber construction" — except what would have soaked into the floorboards.
 
"There were three large portions of the building. Each section had stairs and ramps but there was no sublevel, there is no basement," Garner said.
 
There were no reported injuries. County Ambulance was on scene.
 
The state fire marshal, the Fire Department's investigators, and the Pittsfield Police Department now have access to the building and will begin investigation today. Garner expects firefighters to remain on scene through Tuesday and demolition of some parts of the building will begin. Berkshire Gas was on scene Tuesday morning to shut off the gas line at the road — gas had been shut off to the building but Garner says it needs to be turned off at the street level to allow for demolition. 
 

Update 11:10p.m.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The J.B. Paper Co. on Elmvale Place went up in flames on Monday night.

Deputy Fire Chief Matthew Noyes said there was fire and smoke coming out of the back of the building when firefighters arrived.

"We realized immediately that it had spread rapidly prior to our arrival," he said, adding, "The fire was ahead of us right from the get-go ... within 10 minutes it had broken through the roof in one spot."

He said there was no attempt to enter the building because it was unsafe and that sections began to collapse not longer after arriving.

"It's a building that's been vacant for years," Noyes said. "We've known this has been coming for years. ... We've been out here a bunch of times to pre-plan it."

The call for a second alarm brought in all off-duty firefighters; it went to a third alarm when mutual aid was requested.

Two ladder-truck towers — one set up by Pittsfield and the other by Dalton — were attempting to "surround and drown" the flames from above on one side and hoses are also being sprayed on the other side to contain the conflagration.

There are now at least seven fire companies on scene: Pittsfield, Dalton, Lenox, Richmond, Cheshire, Lanesborough and Hinsdale. Adams is covering the Pittsfield station.

The former paper company was vacant but still had some items inside. Noyes said there was some popping heard but nothing in there was believed to be out of the ordinary for an old mill.

He confirmed that there were initial water supply problems because of the nearby mains, leading to a reliance on tankers early on. Tankers from various Berkshire County fire departments were shuttling in water to fill a portable tank for use in fighting the fire. 

Lines were laid all the way down Elmvale Place from Wahconah Street as well as from a hydrant at Pine Cone Hill, where a gate was opened to allow access to that end of Elmvale.

Workers from the city's Water Department came in to switch valves to ensure that water was flowing where it was needed.

"We now have adequate water to do what we're doing," Noyes said.

The cause of the fire won't be known for some time, if ever. State fire investigators were expected to arrive on Tuesday.


Tankers from various Berkshire County fire departments shuttled water to the scene to help combat the blaze.

For now, firefighters are continuing their defensive posture and keeping a collapse perimeter as a safety precaution since sections of the 1916 mill have already dropped.

"Everyone on the scene is handling things professionally," Noyes said. "We're getting a lot of out-of-town help  ... they're doing a great job."

There were no reported injuries but firefighters were going to be working through the night. County Ambulance was on scene.

"I expect we'll be here at least all night if not into the day tomorrow," Noyes said.

The initial two-alarm fire was reported at about 8 p.m. at the century-old building. By 9:30, the roof on the building was caving in.

There are at least six mills or warehouse buildings along Elmvale Place, a small road off Wahconah street and next to Pittsfield Cemetery. The paper company is the last building on the street.

The flames were so high, they turned the sky orange and lit up the neighborhood. Crowds gathered in the Pine Cone Hill parking lot and on Wahconah street. The glow could be seen for miles. 

Wahconah Street is closed to through traffic from Elmvale to Peck's Road. There are a lot of firetrucks in the area so avoid it possible. Heavy smoke is also filling the neighborhood.

According to documents on file at the Registry of Deeds, building is held by BM Realty Co., operating as J.B. Paper Co., which lists the late Gerald Binder as principal. Binder had run the paper company, his family business, for more than 50 years. He died in 2009.

     

Pittsfield Investigating Apparent Homicide

Staff Reports
Update at 5:30 p.m., Monday:
 
Dr. Mindy Hull, an associate medical examiner for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, conducted the autopsy on 38-year-old Joseph Brown on Monday in Boston. Dr. Hull's preliminary results ruled the manner of death as a homicide from a single gunshot wound to the chest.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A city man was shot dead early Sunday morning, according to the district attorney's office.

The body of Joseph Brown, 38, of Pittsfield was found in his driveway at 343 Columbus Ave. at about 2 a.m. Sunday after 911 call reporting a man down.
 
District Attorney David Capeless' office said Brown appeared to have died from a single gunshot wound to the chest.
 
"The body was removed from the scene by the office of the chief medical examiner and was transported to the Boston office, where an autopsy will be conducted tomorrow," reads a statement from the office.
 
Police are investigating the shooting as an apparent homicide and are asking anyone with any information to contact the department at 413-448-9700. 
 
The investigation is being conducted by members of the Pittsfield Police Department, assisted by the Berkshire detective unit of the State Police assigned to the district attorney's office, the Berkshire Law Enforcement Task Force and the Massachusetts State Police Crime Scene Services Section.
     

Vehicle Towing Boat Catches Fire Near Pontoosuc Lake

By Andy McKeever
iBerkshires Staff

Reader John Friend submitted this photo of the blaze.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Firefighters were able to save a boat after the vehicle towing it caught on fire.
 
Deputy Fire Chief Mark Cancilla said he and six firefighters from two engines responded to Upper North Street, near Pontoosuc Lake between Zucchinis Restaurant and Hancock Road, shortly after 2:30 Wednesday to find a Honda Pilot towing a boat fully involved.
 
Firefighters blocked off the road and ran two hose lines to extinguish the blaze in just 15 minutes — quick enough to save the pontoon boat from further damage.
 
"It was a hot fire. It damaged the pavement," Cancilla said.
 
The occupant had gotten out of the SUV and escaped injury and no firefighters were harmed. Traffic was detoured over Hancock Road for about a half hour while the firefighters worked in temperatures approaching 90 degrees.
 
"It probably wasn't more than 15 minutes to put it out. It was great teamwork, especially in this hot weather," Cancilla said.
 
The front seats on the boat had begun to melt and catch fire when firefighters arrived, but the crew was able to halt any further damage.
 
"We saved the boat," Cancilla said.
 
Cancilla said it appears that the fire started when the trailer hitch broke and jammed into the rear wheel of the Pilot. The spark led to the fire — possibly fueled somewhat by a leak in the transmission line.
 
The Department of Environmental Protection was called in because a storm drain nearby goes into the river. Cancilla said firefighters plugged the drain up in hopes of preventing any contaminants from finding its way in. 
 
The National Highway Traffic Safety Association provides the following tips for towing trailers.
 
General Handling
 
  • Use the driving gear that the manufacturer recommends for towing. 
  • Drive at moderate speeds. This will place less strain on your tow vehicle and trailer. Trailer instability (sway) is more likely to occur as speed increases. 
  • Avoid sudden stops and starts that can cause skidding, sliding, or jackknifing. 
  • Avoid sudden steering maneuvers that might create sway or undue side force on the trailer.
  • Slow down when traveling over bumpy roads, railroad crossings, and ditches. 
  • Make wider turns at curves and corners. Because your trailer's wheels are closer to the inside of a turn than the wheels of your tow vehicle, they are more likely to hit or ride up over curbs. 
  • To control swaying caused by air pressure changes and wind buffeting when larger vehicles pass from either direction, release the accelerator pedal to slow down and keep a firm grip on the steering wheel.
Braking
 
  • Allow considerably more distance for stopping. 
  • If you have an electric trailer brake controller and excessive sway occurs, activate the trailer brake controller by hand. Do not attempt to control trailer sway by applying the tow vehicle brakes; this will generally make the sway worse. 
  • Always anticipate the need to slow down. To reduce speed, shift to a lower gear and press the brakes lightly.
Acceleration and Passing
 
  • When passing a slower vehicle or changing lanes, signal well in advance and make sure you allow extra distance to clear the vehicle before you pull back into the lane. 
  • Pass on level terrain with plenty of clearance. Avoid passing on steep upgrades or downgrades. 
  • If necessary, downshift for improved acceleration or speed maintenance. 
  • When passing on narrow roads, be careful not to go onto a soft shoulder. This could cause your trailer to jackknife or go out of control.
Downgrades and Upgrades
 
  • Downshift to assist with braking on downgrades and to add power for climbing hills. 
  • On long downgrades, apply brakes at intervals to keep speed in check. Never leave brakes on for extended periods of time or they may overheat. 
  • Some tow vehicles have specifically calibrated transmission tow-modes. Be sure to use the tow-mode recommended by the manufacturer.
Backing Up
 
  • Put your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel. To turn left, move your hand left. To turn right, move your hand right. Back up slowly. Because mirrors cannot provide all of the visibility you may need when backing up, have someone outside at the rear of the trailer to guide you, whenever possible. 
  • Use slight movements of the steering wheel to adjust direction. Exaggerated movements will cause greater movement of the trailer. If you have difficulty, pull forward and realign the tow vehicle and trailer and start again.
Parking
 
  • Try to avoid parking on grades. If possible, have someone outside to guide you as you park. Once stopped, but before shifting into Park, have someone place blocks on the downhill side of the trailer wheels. Apply the parking brake, shift into Park, and then remove your foot from the brake pedal. Following this parking sequence is important to make sure your vehicle does not become locked in Park because of extra load on the transmission. For manual transmissions, apply the parking brake and then turn the vehicle off in either first or reverse gear. 
  • When uncoupling a trailer, place blocks at the front and rear of the trailer tires to ensure that the trailer does not roll away when the coupling is released. 
  • An unbalanced load may cause the tongue to suddenly rotate upward; therefore, before un-coupling, place jack stands under the rear of the trailer to prevent injury.
     

Pittsfield Man Arrested in Armed Robbery of K&K Liquors

Staff Reports
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A 25-year-old man was arrested Tuesday afternoon after robbing a liquor store.
 
Sean Matthews, 25, of Pittsfield is accused of armed robbery of K&K Liquors on North Street with a knife at about 10:13 a.m. Police says local and state officers arrived on scene and performed an initial search of the perimeter and shortly after detectives developed Matthews was the suspect. No injuries occurred during the robbery.
 
A short time later, Matthews was arrested and charged with armed robbery and intimidation of a witness. Police are asking any witnesses in the case to contact the detective bureau at 448-9700.
 
"The Pittsfield Police is proud of the manner in which this case was handled from the initial call in the communications center to patrol division response to detective bureau, crime scene unit and narcotics units followup investigations, the case was handled with professionalism and focus."
 
Police wrote in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon.
     

Pittsfield Police Investigating Series Of Shootings

By Andy McKeever
iBerkshires Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Sections of Wahconah Street and Peck's Road were shut down for more than an hour Thursday afternoon in response to reports of gunfire.
 
Police arrested 34-year-old Patrick Coyne "after a brief pursuit" and charged him with carrying a firearm without a license, discharging a firearm within 500 feet of a building, and being armed career criminal. He is being held at the Pittsfield Police Department pending arraignment on Friday in Central Berkshire District Court. Police say additional charges may be forthcoming. 
 
There were no injuries in Thursday's incident.
 
"Evidence of the shooting was located on Peck's Road and in a nearby back yard. The scene was processed by members of the Pittsfield Police Crime Scene Service Unit," police wrote in a statement.
 
According to reports on the scanner, police were looking for a man who was shooting a gun in the Wahconah Street area. The man was reportedly walking on Peck's Road. Police soon had Coyne in custody and found a gun in a nearby location, according to scanner reports. 
 
State police, the Berkshire County sheriff's office and Pittsfield Police shut down Wahconah Street from the ball park to Alcove Street and Peck's Roads from the intersection with Wahconah to just past the fire station shortly before 2 p.m. on Thursday. The roads were reopened shortly after 3 p.m.

The Pittsfield School Department delayed the dismissal of walking students from Reid Middle School to avoid interfering with the evidence search at the intersection of Wahconah, Peck's and Pontoosuc Avenue. 

The shooting is just the latest in a seeming uptick in gun activity.
 
On Wednesday just before 9 p.m., police received a report of shots fired in the area of Second Street and Pond Street. There an adult man was found suffering from a single gunshot wound. The injuries were reported as "non-life threatening." 
 
An hour and a half later, there was another report of shots being fired on Dartmouth Street. No injuries were reported but a vehicle was found to have been damaged by a bullet. 
 
On Saturday, a gunman was arrested near Berkshire Medical Center after a shooting on Hull Avenue, which put the hospital on lockdown.
 
Police Chief Michael Wynn said on Thursday that it is too early to tell if the three reports of shots fired on Wednesday night and Thursday morning are related. The BMC incident appears to have been unrelated, the chief said.
 
"Based on the information available to us at this time, the other three incidents all appear to have been targeted, not random. As I stated at the community meeting, any violent crime is concerning, but these incidents are not directed at the public in general. Unfortunately, there is a risk of someone being in the area of one of these incidents and being inadvertently injured," Wynn wrote in an email on Thursday.
 
A little over two weeks ago, a 17-year-old man was shot on Bartlett Avenue, which triggered a community meeting held by the Wards 4 and 5 city councilors. There Wynn said the shootings were among known gang members and he, as well as other officers, asked the public to "see something, say something." He expanded on that Thursday by saying that in addition to reporting suspicious activity, families and peers of individuals heading down a violent path can help police intervene.
 
"I just attended an FBI briefing in which the agent stated that peers and family members are the most likely to see things or hear statements that indicate that an individual is on a trajectory toward violence. The most important thing that the community can do is let us know if they have any indication that someone has the intention or the means to engage in this type of activity. We would prefer to intervene before they carry out a violent act," Wynn said.
 
As for the current cases, Wynn wrote that police are "devoting every available resource to working these cases." 
 
"We have authorized shift commanders to redeploy their resources based on reported activity and to request additional resources to their shifts as they see fit. Our investigative units are also aggressively working these cases," Wynn wrote.
 
Mayor Linda Tyer issued a statement on Facebook regarding the incidents, promising that the city is using "every available resource" to get control of the violence.
 
"This is hard. Really hard. I know how upsetting the ongoing gang and gun violence is to all of you. I'm distressed, too. Please be assured that every available resource is being deployed and a great deal of advance planning is constantly taking place to proactively engage in these very serious circumstances," she wrote. 
 
"I understand that you'd like to have the details about police strategy. Unfortunately, when we release that kind of information to the public it also becomes available to those we pursue. I'm determined to get this under control and I need your help. See something, know something, say something. And I'll say this, too, even before I became mayor I had a great deal of respect for our police department. Since taking office my respect and admiration for their diligence, strategy, and commitment to keeping us safe has grown immensely. Without their persistence our situation would be much worse. Let's be on their side."
     
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