3-alarm fire ravages Back Bay building

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / November 16, 2008
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By the time firefighters were through battling a blaze in a Boylston Street commercial building yesterday, display lamps in the upstairs windows at Crate & Barrel were framed by jagged shards of glass. Downstairs at the Atlantic Fish restaurant, sections of soggy plaster dangled from the ceiling, and soot and dirt had soaked into the white tablecloths.

The morning fire, which temporarily eluded firefighters as it raged unseen in the uppermost ceiling of Crate & Barrel, caused an estimated $1.6 million in damage and left the popular restaurant and furniture store closed indefinitely, a Boston Fire Department spokesman said.

Ninety firefighters responded to the three-alarm fire, which began with an electrical short-circuit in the third-floor ceiling of the three-story building, in ducts above the sprinklers, department spokesman Steve MacDonald said. Four firefighters were treated briefly for injuries incurred battling the smoky blaze, he said. No other injuries were reported.

Firefighters made two trips to 761 and 777 Boylston St. The first was after a 6:10 a.m. alert from a company that monitors the building's fire alarm. Firefighters responding from the station house 2 1/2 blocks west smelled no smoke but couldn't see fire coming from the locked building, so they decided not to break in, MacDonald said. He said the department gets several such calls every day and must consider false alarms.

But when the manager of Atlantic Fish arrived for work a few minutes later, she smelled smoke inside and called 911 at about 6:30 a.m., MacDonald said.

This time, firefighters found the top floor shrouded in smoke, although they had difficulty pinpointing the fire's center, he said.

"Every time we opened up a ceiling trying to fight the fire, we'd find another ceiling," MacDonald said, describing tiers of plaster above Crate & Barrel's showroom. "It was a difficult fire to find."

As the fire progressed unseen, firefighters used thermal-imaging cameras and pulled down the ceiling. They fought the flames from both sides and punched multiple holes in the roof before controlling the fire at about 7:30 a.m., MacDonald said.

Boylston Street was closed between Fairfield and Exeter streets for about four hours.

Crate & Barrel and Atlantic Fish share the building's first floor and the furniture store extends above the restaurant on the second and third floors.

The restaurant's damage was visible to passersby, but MacDonald said damage to Crate & Barrel was more striking, especially on the third floor, where the fire was contained.

"Just picture the whole mess of ceiling all down on top of display furniture," MacDonald said. "You can't appreciate the damage from the sidewalk."

After the blaze was extinguished, workers from remediation and restoration companies moved in and out of the building, and pedestrians gathered to take in the scene.

Stephanie Hayes, a Newbury Street resident who said she heard the early morning sirens, stopped to send a text message to her brother, who was on his way to shop at Crate & Barrel for office furniture and meet her for lunch. "This is very upsetting. I come here all the time," said Hayes, expressing concern for the businesses and their employees as the holiday season approaches.

Teresa Bustin, Crate & Barrel's area manager, said she did not know when the store would reopen or what would happen to its workers. "We haven't formulated any plan yet," she said. "Obviously, right before Christmas is a harder time, but we're a really strong company, and we will figure it out and get open as soon as possible."

As workers swept up broken glass from the upper windows, Charles Sarkis Jr., vice president of the restaurant group that owns Atlantic Fish, surveyed the scene in rubber wading boots. He also said he did not know when his business would reopen.

"It won't be days. Hopefully not months," said Sarkis, whose Back Bay Restaurant Group also owns the steakhouse Abe & Louie's, on the other side of Crate & Barrel. He said employees at the seafood restaurant would be given temporary jobs at other company venues. "We'll take good care of them," he said. "They take good care of us."

The fire was contained to the two-occupant building. The restaurants on either side - Abe & Louie's to the west, Vox Populi to the east - opened for lunch as usual. The apartments above Vox Populi, at 755 Boylston, were evacuated during the fire and received some smoke damage, but residents were allowed to return at about 9 a.m., MacDonald said.

Firefighters responded in March to a fire across the street in the spa and fitness center of the Mandarin Oriental, which was under construction. That caused the hotel and condominium complex to delay its opening from July to October.

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