Dumpster fire scorches landmark
New London’s old city hall still intact
By Scott Bellile
While residents rooted for the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Dec. 3, firefighters were scrambling to prevent New London’s old city hall from burning down.
New London Fire Department was paged at 2:48 p.m. to a dumpster fire in the parking lot behind St. John’s Community Thrift Store, 107 W. North Water St.
The building is connected to and immediately west of the former city hall, 103 W. North Water St.
The fire originated in the dumpster, spread to another dumpster and then began scaling the north wall of the old city hall building.
The flames caused natural gas meters to explode, according to New London Fire Capt. Don Conat. He estimated that the flames grew to 20 feet high by 30 feet wide.
“The flames were actually impinging on the old city hall building but because it was a brick building, it saved the building from probably burning down,” Conat said. “When those natural gas meters burned, the flames were impinging on the wall of the old city hall pretty heavily.
“It was also to the point where the flames were just about getting into the building, the thrift shop and the apartments above the thrift shop,” Conat said. “The windows were starting to break out because of the heat, so within just a couple minutes the thrift shop and the apartments above definitely could have been on fire.”
Nobody was injured or taken to the hospital as a direct result of the fire, Conat said. However, one tenant was bitten or scratched on the hand by his cat while escaping.
Cause a mystery
The cause of the fire is not determined. Conat said it appears to be suspicious.
“Dumpsters just don’t start on fire on their own unless there would be some stained rags or something that would spontaneously combust,” Conat said.
The items inside the dumpster were so scorched that it may be impossible to determine if something in there started the fire, Conat said.
There did not appear to be excess trash in the dumpster when the fire occurred, New London Building Inspector Paul Hanlon said, and there have not been issues with the property owner or tenants regarding improper trash disposal.
Residents, businesses displaced
The fire displaced 12 residents who live in nine upper-level apartments throughout 103 and 107 W. North Water St., Conat said. They received help from the Red Cross.
Jim Robl, who owns both buildings, was outside cleaning up Monday, Dec. 4. He told the Press Star he hoped for his tenants to be back inside by Wednesday, Dec. 6.
“We’re working to get it back fully operational as soon as possible,” Robl said.
As of Monday, all the businesses and apartments within the two buildings were closed or inaccessible.
Three businesses occupy the two buildings.
QPS Employment Group and Maria Tamayo Portrait are located in the old city hall building.
St. John’s Community Thrift Store occupies 107 W. North Water St. It also has space in the back section of the old city hall.
“At this current time we will not be accepting donations,” St. John’s Community Thrift Store posted on its Facebook page Monday, Dec. 4. “We will be closed until further notice.”
Extinguishing the fire took 10 minutes, Conat said, but New London Fire Department remained on scene for an hour and a half to ventilate smoke from an apartment and the thrift store.
A section of North Pearl Street was closed from North Water Street to Park Street while firefighters worked.
Anyone with information on how the fire began is asked to call New London Police Department at 920-982-8505 or New London Fire Department at 920-982-8507.
Woman helps evacuate residents
Conat commended a New London woman named Samantha Mapes. She ran through the old city hall apartments alerting people to evacuate.
Conat said her efforts freed up firefighters’ time to focus on the blaze instead of evacuation.
Mapes said she and her two children were coming home from her parents’ house in Dale when she decided to deviate from her usual route and drive through downtown. Her 6-year-old son Kenith spotted smoke, alerted his mother and then dialed 911 for Mapes to talk with dispatch.
Driving around to the back parking lot and seeing how large the dumpster fire was, Mapes knew she had to act.
“It was weird, like my adrenaline was going,” Mapes said. “It was just direct instinct that I had to go in there and get everyone out. I just told my kids, ‘Stay in the car, I love you, I’ll be right back,’ and just went in.”
Someone was already evacuating the apartments above the thrift store so Mapes knocked on the doors in the old city hall.
People were home at every apartment but one, Mapes said, and largely unaware of the fire outside.
The toughest part was meeting a boy who was home alone with his younger brother because they were taught not to interact with strangers. She said she put her foot in the door as he closed it on her in order to convince him it was an emergency and to leave.
Mapes said what did not cross her mind is she is pregnant with her third child. Her top priority in an emergency is to make sure everyone else is OK.
She said she is considering enrolling in tech school to become a police officer.
City hall history
The old city hall was built in 1896 for less than $14,000, according to history materials at New London Public Museum.
The building originally contained the city clerk’s and treasurer’s offices, city council chambers, library, police station, jail and fire station.
In the late 1960s, the Wisconsin Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations determined the upper floor was sagging and parts of the building were structurally unsafe. It ordered the city to either repair the building or move out.
The city chose the latter. In 1972, New London’s city offices moved to the newly constructed city hall at 215 N. Shawano St.
The old city hall was sold to Dave Rusch and Wesley Fenske of Cline & Hanson Furniture. It has been privately owned since.
UPDATE: Paul Hanlon, New London building inspector, contacted the Press Star on Thursday, Dec. 7, to state he was misunderstood in an interview. Hanlon stated in regards to trash pile-up: “There has been ongoing issues with that property. The owner has addressed them after I contact him.” Hanlon stated the ongoing issues with trash pile-up have been occurring at the property “over the last 5 years or so.”
In a memo to city staff dated Tuesday, Dec. 5, Halon stated: “A complaint about garbage accumulation behind the St. John’s Thrift Store was received on Thursday. I spoke with the owner that afternoon and he advised he would contact Graichen and get it removed. The owner failed to take care of it. On Sunday there was a fire in that area that damaged the electric services and gas meters along with the rest of the utilities at the back of the building.”
This article will be updated if the Press Star hears from the property owner with his side of the story.