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After the devastation, Lynn looks to future

Lynn yesterday took the first steps forward from a weekend fire storm that laid to ruin much of the historic shoemaking city's link to the past and its plans for the future.

While club-carrying National Guard troops cordoned off the smoldering remains of the city's historic shoe district, local, state and federal officials met to size up total fire damage and map out a strategy for recovery.

A formal request to designate Lynn a federal disaster area was expected to reach the White House sometime late this afternoon or early tomorrow, and Gov. Edward J. King said that he would go to Washington if necessary to press the application for aid.

About 100 families were left homeless by the fire, which officials say began in a vacant building under demolition shortly after 2 a.m. Saturday and spread to 27 other buildings, destroying 17 of them.

Mayor Antonio Marino vowed at a packed City Hall meeting yesterday that Lynn would begin again the nearly finished, five-year downtown renovation effort gutted by the 15-hour, blaze, believed to have been set.

"It's going to bleed a while, and the pain is going to be around for a while," he told hundreds of residents, businessmen and officials, "but nothing will stop us from rebuilding Lynn as we had planned."

Marino and other officials spent the day assessing the housing, job and property losses to support the disaster aid request. While the fire leveled $35 million worth of real estate over a five-square block area, up to another $35 million could have been lost in smoke damage, factory equipment and other possessions consumed in the blaze, according to state Rep. Timothy Bassett (D- Lynn).

A disaster area designation would speed release of funds to clean up and build new housing, and would make available to Lynn businessmen low-interest loans covering up to 85 percent of fire damages. Eugene Doody, state commissioner of unemployment security, said 1500 employess idled by the blaze may file this week for claims that could total $6 million over the next six months.

Meanwhile, work crews using three 100-foot wrecking cranes knocked down a half-dozen precarious walls left standing amidst the smoking rubble and sheets of ice in the heart of the fire zone, a half-mile square area known as the Industrial Loft section of Lynn.

The first wall tumbled by the crane's three-ton cement ball was the front of the former Benson Shoe Co., which stood after the fire like a blackened Hollywood movie prop.

Several engine companies from Lynn and nearby communities continued to dump water drafted from the Atlantic Ocean on some "hot spots" yesterday and throughout the night. Boston Edison Co. shut off all gas to the burned buildings by 9 a.m. yesterday, ending the gas fires that lingered through the night.

As bulldozers began shoveling the brick and glass into piles, more than 1000 onlookers pressed against the National Guard lines and roadblocks to view the decimated area. A force of 230 Guard troops from the Salem armory were patrolling the streets in visored helmets and carrying clubs.

Reports of looting and vandalism were limited to youths breaking windows and stealing "a few things," said Patrolman Adam Kotkowski of the Lynn Police. "No arrests. There's nothing to loot."

Buildings Comr. Arthur Coates said he hoped normal traffic could resume in area late tomorrow or Wednesday.

An arson strike force comprised of Lynn fire and police officials, Essex County prosecutors, the state fire marshal, the state police commissioner and agents of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was formed yesterday at City Hall. Investigators said they would try today to probe 566 Broad st., where they believe the fire began.

State Fire Marshal Joseph A. O'Keefe said at a news conference yesterday that the fire was of "suspicious but undetermined origin." At least one night watchman was on duty at the former Marshall's Wharf building, destroyed in the blaze, he said. Fire Chief Joseph Scanlon said he believed someone threw "incendiary material" through a first-floor window.

Arson investigators said yesterday that they have "some statements" from persons they have interviewed, but they would not elaborate. The vacant building was owned by a city redevelopment authority and was not insured, which investigators said decreases the likelihood of an arson-for-profit scheme.

The Lynn police officer who was first to arrive at the fire said in an interview yesterday that the fire appeared to have been set.

Detective William Foley, 41, was "taking a swing through the city" on his way home at 2:30 a.m. Saturday from a paid detail at a Lynn cocktail lounge when he heard the first fire call on his radio, he said.

"I instantly shot down and found the front of the bottom floor in flames," said Foley. "No one was around. It was going all right, but I thought it wouldn't be too bad. Then it really went up. It seemed like the fire spread to the rear of the floor in a matter of minutes."

"I'm no arson expert, but it seems like something had to be in there to expand the fire to the rear so fast," Foley said.

Many of the floors in the old mill buildings in the shoe district, investigators noted, are soaked with oil and other solvents from years of industrial use.

Foley said that flying sparks quickly ignited a skylight in the adjacent Leisure Towers, a 179-unit apartment building, as he and other officers and firefighters began evacuating people from recently renovated housing for the elderly nearby.

More than 600 firefighters from 79 communities fought the blaze, which was fanned by brisk winds until it reached fire storm proportions and created hurricane-force gales.

Six firefighters, two evacutated women, one spectator and one police officer, were brought to area hospitals.

City redevelopment leaders expressed amazement yesterday that the former Vamp building, its upper floors charred, roof collapsed and walls encased in ice in the fire's aftermath, will apparently survive.

Now known as Harbor Loft II, the shoeheel-shaped eight-story brick building is the "gem" of the city's $195 million redevelopment, according to Mayor Marino. It burned for 12 hours and firefighters initially expected it to collaspe.

"We're going to be able to save this one and rebuild it," Robert Gauthier, chief design consultant to the firm that converted the former mill into 242 units of housing, said as cranes leveled the building's neighbors. "The sprinkler system saturated the lower floors enough that they didn't burn. Bricklayers have told me that Vamp now has some of the finest brick work in the country."

One note sounded frequently by Lynn officials was their thanks to other communities. Deputy Chief William Conway said 95 cities and towns sent men, equipment or both.

"Without mutual aid response, this would have been even worse,' he said. "Especially with Proposition 2 1/2 , we just can't survive alone anymore."

 Day of the fire storm in Lynn (Boston Globe, 11/29/81)
 List of injured in Lynn fire (Boston Globe, 11/29/81)
 Federal aid tight, senators tell Lynn (Boston Globe, 12/1/81)
 JEREMIAH MURPHY: A tough old city (Boston Globe, 12/1/81)
 How they fought the Lynn fire (Boston Globe, 12/4/81)
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