A devastating fire tore through the heart of Monroe on November 3, 2010, completely destroying the Skate Time building at 193 Main St., which also housed the Fairfield County Shooting Range and an apartment rented by a young couple.
On that fateful Wednesday morning, firefighters began receiving reports of white smoke billowing from the building, from the fire believed to have started around 10:15 a.m. that day.
Firefighters battled the chaotic inferno for several hours before it was declared under control by 4 p.m. Although the structure ultimately collapsed after succumbing to the flames, the efforts of the firefighters were not in vain, as their work led to zero injuries or deaths.
Firefighters also protected the house next door by deploying a master stream mounted on a ladder truck and three hand operated hose lines between the two buildings.
Problems for the building actually began five days before the fire. On Oct. 29, at 4:57 p.m., the three volunteer fire companies, Stepney, Monroe and Stevenson, received a call reporting smoke coming out of the building.
The three volunteer fire companies all dispatched units to investigate the reports. The smoke was traced back to a wood furnace that was having issues starting up. The event was nothing out of the ordinary.
On Nov. 3, when a similar call was made about smoke from the building, and the assumption was made that it was a similar issue regarding the wood furnace — nothing to be alarmed about, firefighters recalled.
“Even with this initial mindset, units were signing on at a normal pace. The next transmission from dispatch would change the day,” George Lattanzi, who was the incident commander that day and the Monroe fire chief at the time of the fire, wrote in his article about the incident.
Firefighters received a call from an off-duty police officer confirming there was a fire in the building. Thus began the lengthy battle with the fire.
No hydrants nearby
The water supply was among the factors that made the firefighting operation challenging, according to Monroe Fire Marshal William “Bill” Davin.
“There’s a lack of water in that area,” he recalled. “The closest hydrant I want to say was like 1500 feet up the road.”
Other towns came to assist the Monroe firefighters through the mutual aid system from as far as West Redding and Seymour. Fire trucks from neighboring towns delivered water using their tanker trucks, while others drafted water from a stream across the street. In all, two million gallons of water were used to douse the fire, which lasted about six hours.
Another aspect that complicated the fire was the “bow-string truss” roof construction of the building. A bow-string truss is an old-school style of building where a large arch (similar to the shape of a bow) supports the majority of the weight needed for a building with large open spans. Bow-string trusses are rare now, because fire burns through the support easily, causing a domino effect of the trusses to fail and the buildings to collapse.
Along with the bow-string truss, the building contained multiple large voids, which are large portions of empty space built into a building’s design.
The Big Y supermarket is an example of this. “Before you walk into the building, there’s a big part of the building up front. That’s just there for aesthetics. That’s all voids,” Lattanzi explained. Voids create extra room for fires to find oxygen, making it grow.
During the Skate Time fire, the situation escalated when firefighters began hearing explosions coming from the building.
Ammunition from the Fairfield County Shooting Range started igniting. Firefighters had the difficult task of assessing whether or not the area was safe due to the potential threat of projectiles from the explosions.
“It sounded like fireworks. You didn’t know exactly how much stuff was in there, and how long it’s gonna keep detonating,” recalled current Monroe Fire Chief Kevin Catalano, who was a firefighter and the public information officer at the time. “It just added another angle of complexity to the call.”
Fire Marshal William Davin investigated the cause of the fire, eventually narrowing its origin to the apartment.
“It was a ceiling fan. A bathroom exhaust fan,” he said. “They wear out. In my inspections, when my guys and myself do our inspections, we constantly remind commercial property owners to clean the bathroom fan.”
All of these factors came together to create a historic fire for Monroe, with widespread effects all over town.
The power had to be cut from Main Street, causing issues for a number of small businesses. Due to the amount of water that was needed to combat the fire, Stepney Elementary School began having water issues and had to close early for the day, causing a logistical nightmare for the buses, as well as parents, who suddenly needed to be home for their children.
The owner of the Skate Time suffered the biggest loss that day, as the Connecticut Post reported:
“We rehabbed the whole thing and were getting ready to expand,’ Art (Art DeFrancisco, the owner of Skate Time) said. “We’d sometimes work 18 or 20 hours a day. We’d sleep for four hours and then get back to work. When I saw this fire this morning, my heart kind of fell into my legs.”
The domino effect of obstacles faced while battling the blaze at 193 Main St. makes it a memorable experience for Lattanzi and his fellow firefighters.
“I’ll tell you personally, showing up early on the incident, you feel confident that you can aggressively attack this fire,” Lattanzi said. “But there are some things that just are out of your hands … and then as the fire started progressing in the shooting range, and the smoke was building very high and flames are shooting out, you’re starting to realize this is going to be all day ’til everybody’s safe.”
All respectful comments with the commenter’s first and last name are welcome.