The Kingston Fire Department: Some History and a Tragedy: Part II
KINGSTON – (In the first part of this Chronicle, long-time Kingston resident, fireman, and selectman Don Clark recounted some history of the Kingston fire department – their equipment and responding systems. Here he goes on to tell of a tragic fire he witnessed.)
One cold winter morning about 4:30 a.m., the Red Phone rang. A woman’s hysterical voice said “house on fire” but it was very difficult to hear what street she said. Bob Merrick was on the other Red Phone and we agreed it must have been from Babscott Lane. Bob drove one of the fire trucks and I drove the ambulance with another attendant. We had a policy that the ambulance would always go to a fire and have two attendants if possible.
When we arrived at the scene, there wasn’t much fire but quite a lot of smoke. We opened some windows to let the smoke out and I went in the hall window of this small one-story ranch. Of course, windows shouldn’t be opened because it causes more draft, but in those days we did not have Scott Air Packs, helmets, and suits. We had to investigate because we didn’t know if any people were in there or not. The lights were on and I started looking around.
In the hall coming from the main bedroom was the father, Phillip Blake, on the floor – dead from smoke inhalation. Keeping my head low I went through the living room into another bedroom and saw another very sad sight. There was a baby boy, 2 years old, in a crib and a 4-year old boy on a small bed, both dead from the smoke. All three individuals did not have any burns. Later we learned that after waking her husband, the wife had escaped out the hall window with their 3 year old daughter. She ran to a neighbor’s house to call in the fire.
The fire was believed to have been caused by an overheated central floor furnace. Many homes had this type of hot air furnace because they were inexpensive, but they were not very safe. The furnace was suspended from the living room floor into the basement with one large heating register flush with the floor. On this particular night it was very cold so they turned the heat way up and went to bed. The mistake made was that before going to bed, they put many diapers on a wooden rack over the large register. After drying out, the diapers got hotter and hotter and finally reached the combustion point and caught fire. This intense heat caused the curtains, overstuffed furniture, and other light combustible materials to catch fire. These items were smoldering, causing the smoke, but the wooden items didn’t catch fire. When we arrived, there were no flames so the fire was put out quickly.
Dr. Claire, the Rockingham County Coroner, had to come all the way from Portsmouth to pronounce that the three people had died. The Reverend Bob Howard went to see the widow that next morning. Although he had never met her before, he felt that he helped by just listening to her. Later he officiated at the tragic funeral.
(Editor’s note: Don Clark is a long-time Kingston resident, who served the community as a fireman, teacher, and selectman.)