Authorities weigh different scenarios as possible cause of Friendly’s fire 

  • Fire officials continue to investigate the cause of a fire that heavily damaged the former Friendly’s restaurant on North Main Street in Concord. ALLIE ST PETER / Monitor staff

  • Concord firefighter shoveling debris after the fire at former Friendly’€™s restaurant on North Main Street in Concord that occured on Tuesday night, October 13, 2020. ALLIE ST PETER

  • Firefighters battle the flames and smoke at the site of the former Friendly's restaurant on North Main Street in Concord on Tuesday night, October 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Firefighters battle the flames and smoke at the site of the former Friendly's restaurant on North Main Street in Concord on Tuesday night, October 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 10/21/2020 5:25:52 PM

The fire at the old Friendly’s on North Main Street in Concord may have been caused by a faulty appliance left behind after the restaurant closed, or maybe it was started by one of the homeless people who had gained access to the vacant building in the last year, fire officials said.

More than a week after the fire tore through the building, Concord Fire Marshal Paul Sirois said further investigation is needed before officials can file their final conclusions.

And even then, Sirois said, there’s no guarantee that authorities will find anything more than what Concord’s fire and police departments, who are combining resources, already know.

Any one of several pieces of heavy equipment, left behind by the former owner, might have malfunctioned in some way to cause the blaze. The electricity and gas had not been turned off.

Other leads point to a different cause, perhaps accidental or maybe even intentional.

Sirois and Concord Fire Chief Guy Newbery said a phone call came in less than two hours before the fire was reported, complaining that an individual was hanging around the front entrance of the Friendly’s, which closed one year ago this month. It had been available to lease from a real estate company in Boston; now, its future remains unknown.

The unidentified person fueled speculation that a homeless person was seeking shelter inside the abandoned building and somehow started the fire after entering. And that means a lot of footwork by police, including in the area of the railroad tracks behind Market Basket, where some of Concord’s largely-hidden homeless community live.

“It’s been a rumor about a homeless issue,” Newbery said. “And there is a shred of truth to that because we found out that homeless had been in and out of the building at different points, so that attached them to the building. We don’t know if (appliances) had been properly disconnected. They still had gas and electricity, so there are a lot of pieces to track down.”

Added Sirois:

“It’s ongoing, and we’re trying to follow-up on some questions or leads in regards to who may have been inside. We’re looking at different areas of the building and we’re touching all the bases, taking a look at areas of the building with the new and previous owners, asking what was on, what was off. This one is much bigger than your normal room fire.”

The building on North Main Street was constructed in 1967. It was last owned by SIC Property, a firm based in Boca Raton, Fla., and is valued at $603,500, according to city tax records. The property changed ownership several times through the decades, but the Friendly’s restaurant remained a consistent tenant.

Sirois said he believed the Charles River Realty Group out of Boston had bought the site within the last few weeks. He added, though, that he had no paperwork in hand – the mortgage, insurance policies, etc. – to confirm definitively who the buyer was. He said he recently spoke to a Charles River representative about the fire and expected to talk again soon.

That same representative, Justin Ferris, a project and property manager, told the Monitor he’d alert the appropriate person to comment on the sale and what the future might hold for the building, but no further information was received. 

Concord is still home to a Friendly’s, at 147 Loudon Road. The one closer to downtown burned on Oct. 13 and was called in at around 7 p.m. and was brought under control just after 8.

Fire officials said that the restaurant did not have sprinklers, which have not been required in restaurants since a code was written in the 1960s. Overnight institutions – such as care and retirement facilities – were required to have sprinkler systems.

The statute, however, said alarm systems were needed, and the Friendly’s here had one, Newbery and Sirois said. But by the time they arrived at the fire, they heard nothing.

“No alarm,” Sirois said. “It was not being monitored, so even though it might have been alerted, it’s unknown if it was working or not.”

Fire officials said a meeting was being planned with the Concord Police Department, which is also investigating. A call to Concord police seeking an update on their findings was not returned.

That meeting will help guide what officials say is a confusing case because of, among other reasons, the size of the building and the mess inside, and the fact that no video cameras were in the area, or at least none were pointed at the restaurant.

“Lots of questions,” Newbery said. “Was the furnace on, and if so, when was it last maintained? The freezers there, on or off? The breakers, on or off? We want conversations to answer some of our questions. It takes time.”

The building suffered extensive smoke and water damage, and the fire created a dangerous scenario for firefighters, who could not address the fire from inside the restaurant because the core of the blaze was one floor above the dining section,  in the area of the attic and roof.

“When we got there the roof started to cave,” Sirois said.

He said the coordinated effort by the city’s two main safety agencies should reveal an answer soon. That answer, of course, might be inconclusive.

“We’ll have determined a cause or report that it was undetermined,” Sirois said. “Hopefully something by week’s end.”

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