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Officials: Cause of Hadley fire may never be known

HADLEY — The cause of a devastating fire that destroyed a dozen small businesses and two apartments last year will remain undetermined despite a nearly seven-month investigation, according to the state Fire Marshal’s Office.

Fire investigators last year pinpointed the origin of the Oct. 27, 2013, blaze at Norwottuck Shoppes Plaza at 206 Russell St. as the Hadley Coin-Op Laundromat, but they have not been unable to nail down the cause, State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said Friday.

“The fire started directly behind a bank of dryers in the laundromat, but there is not enough evidence to determine specifically which dryer was involved or the exact ignition source,” Coan said in a joint statement with Hadley Fire Chief Michael Spanknebel.

Coan said State Police investigators assigned to his office will continue to work on the case if new information develops, but for now, the investigation is over.

The nighttime blaze tore through the plaza that housed a variety of small businesses, including a pastry shop, dry cleaners, Kung Fu studio, computer repair service, food markets and restaurants, among others. No one was killed in the fire, though one firefighter received minor injuries.

Damages were estimated at more than $1 million.

Some of the plaza’s merchants have reopened their businesses elsewhere, while others are still struggling to rebuild despite financial relief efforts coordinated by the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Hampshire County.

Hai Cheng owned International Food Market and is still trying to find way to restart his business, a prospect he described Friday as “grim.”

“Closure would be good, but the bottom line is we need to be able to start our businesses and all that is up in the air at this point,” he said. “It’s been a challenging six months.”

“For all these small businesses, it would have been nice to get some closure on what really happened and not have it hanging around,” state Rep. John W. Scibak, D-South Hadley, whose district includes Hadley, said Friday after learning the fire investigation had ended. “I can also understand that it’s not a perfect science.”

Spanknebel, the Hadley fire chief, said in a statement Friday the fire was difficult to fight. He thanked mutual aid companies from the region that responded and tried to control the blaze as well as the state and federal agencies that led the fire investigation and tried to determine its cause.

Hadley Town Administrator David G. Nixon also commended the many fire companies that responded on the night the plaza burned down, including the town’s force. “It’s obviously a big tragedy and we’re still feeling the effects of the dislocation of these businesses in Hadley,” Nixon said.

The vacant 1.35-acre property at 206 Russell St. is still owned by the Thatcher family of Colrain under Norwottuck Inn Holding Company LLC. They could not be reached for comment Friday.

The property’s assessment has dropped to $450,500 in the wake of the fire, according to the Hadley assessors office.

The fire was investigated by the Hadley Fire and Police Departments, the Office of the State Fire Marshal and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The ATF often joins investigative teams on fires involving commercial buildings.

As the fire marshal’s office explained it, investigators pursue witnesses to a fire “while memories are fresh or before those displaced by fire become hard to locate.” Witness statements are then compared with forensic evidence at the scene.

After determining the point of origin, investigators need witnesses to identify possible sources of ignition and work through them until they are left with one probable cause. If investigators cannot come up with a probable cause, they are required to leave the fire’s cause as undetermined, according to the fire marshal’s office.

Finally, fire investigators are trained to examine a fire scene by going from the least amount of burn to the point or points with the most amount of burn damage. That is based on the belief that the areas burning the longest are where the most damage is — and the origin of the fire. Analyzing burn patterns can help reveal how the fire spread, how hot it was and how long it burned, according to Coan.

“It is a challenge to determine the cause of the fire when so much of the needed evidence is destroyed by the fire itself,” Coan said.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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