Alvirne High School Fire: A Tragedy Turned Triumph

September 5, 2014

by Tom Tollefson

Tragedies stick with you.  Even years after the damage has been cleaned up, the memories remain.  Anyone who was there for the Alvirne fire still remembers it vividly even as its 40th anniversary approaches.  The glare of the flames, stench of smoke hanging heavy in the air, and the reconstruction are memories that will be forever locked in the minds of residents who were in Hudson at the time.  It’s not only a story about the largest school fire in New Hampshire history, it’s a tale of triumph as a community came together to make the best of a tough situation and see the reconstruction completed in only a year.  These moments and details both bad and good are best told through the words of those who experienced them firsthand.

Mostly everyone you ask about the fire will describe it as “horrifying” and “overwhelming.”  No one ever expected to see the town’s largest school building exploding in flames and searing smoke, but it happened.  In the early morning hours of Sunday, September 8, 1974, just a few days into the new school year, Hudson Selectman Stanley Alukonis happened to be driving by when he saw the flames and made the emergency call.

“The emergency call went to Nashua and they sent a fire truck to Nashua High and found nothing.  Then they saw the sky was lit up by Hudson.  They notified Hudson to check their high school,” said Hudson firefighter Lieutenant Harry Chesnulevich, who became one of the first responders at the scene.

Chesnulevich was one of the first firefighters to receive the call through Kelly Answering Service, which helped the fire department receive emergency calls at the time.  He ran down the street from his home on Library Street to the Leonard Smith Fire Station and jumped into a fire truck and was on his way to Alvirne.  Only minutes after the emergency call came in, his truck was the first one to arrive on the scene.  Dozens of other fire trucks were close behind and tore into the parking lot of the high school with all sirens blaring.

“When we got to around where True Value was we saw the glow in the sky.  Upon pulling up in front of the school we saw the cupola (dome structure) had collapsed onto the first floor,” he said about first seeing the flames.  “The school was pretty much engulfed.”

Another historic moment Chesnulevich and many others recall is Fire Chief Frank Nutting, Jr.’s speedy ride.  Nutting was on vacation in Wells, Maine at the time, but still made it to the fire scene in only 45 minutes from the time he received the call.

Many residents heard the sirens and noise and gathered to see what was happening.

“I was impressed that morning when I got up there at about 5 a.m. in the morning and there were town’s people already up there,” said Peter Dolloff, Hudson superintendent at that time.  “It was stunning to look up and see that building on fire.  You would think it would be somewhat fireproof with a brick building, but it didn’t have fire stops and the fire just raced through the attic from one end to the other.”

Not long after arriving, word went out to the firefighters to stay out of the building.

“We had thoughts of going into the building and stopping the spread of the fire to the north end, but upon finding a crack on the roof edge, we were told no one was going into the building because it could collapse,” Chesnulevich said.  “I looked and said we aren’t going to save anything here so we’ll just surround and drown.  I had my crew more or less protect the office area.”

The walls didn’t collapse, but the whole interior of the building ended up burning.  Several hundred firefighters stayed outside the building and pumped 23,000 gallons of water onto the fire for a couple hours before it went out.

In the end, 80 percent of the building was destroyed with the only undamaged parts being the main office and the agricultural area in the north wing.  Chesnulevich and the rest of the firefighters succeeded in preserving those areas.

“It (the agricultural wing) was a separate building.  They weren’t connected.  There was a driveway in between,” He said about the separation between the main brick building and the agricultural wing.  “It was a hard time keeping the fire from spreading from the north end of the building.  We finally got enough water on it to keep it from going all the way to the end.”

Chesnulevich estimated that the fire had been burning for about an hour before they arrived on scene.  It remains a mystery as to why no one else had noticed it sooner.

Chesnulevich went on to complete 44 years with the fire department and achieved the rank of deputy chief before retiring in 2000.

Hudson residents flocked to the scene to see what was left of the high school later that morning.  Students and adults alike could be seen crying and standing in awe and disbelief at the sight of destruction in their own town.

“We just couldn’t believe it.  We could see all the steel bent over and melted and water was flowing everywhere.  It was a mess; I have never seen anything like it in my life.  It was something you never forget,” longtime resident Shirley Nadeau remembers after stopping at the scene while on her way home from church with her family that morning.

Shawn Jasper, former Hudson selectman and Hudson native, who has sat on most of the town boards, was a sophomore at Alvirne at the time, and also remembers that day vividly.

“He (his father Robert Jasper) never woke me up to tell me that my high school was on fire.  He just got up and left himself.  My mother woke me up a couple hours later and I biked down there.  By the time I got down there the fire was out,” he said.

Jasper described the remains of the school after the fire as a “smoldering mess with twisted metal where the gym was.”

“Everyone was in a state of disbelief.  School had just started and the high school was gone,” Jasper said.

In the days that followed, teachers, students, and residents all came out to help comb through the rubble and salvage as many items as possible.

“We actually salvaged a lot of equipment and some furniture.  The staff all pitched in and worked with the construction people to salvage as much of the equipment as possible,” Dolloff said.

Alvirne secretary Brenda Proulx remembered rummaging through the remains.

“It was a smoky smell.  The bookcases, file cabinets, and a lot of the furniture smelled quite bad.  We put charcoal bricks in file cabinets to help get rid of the smell.  It was better, but you could still smell it.  It took many years to get rid of that odor.”

The fire department concluded that the fire was a result of arson.  They found accelerant sprayed along the lockers.

“According to Frank (Hudson fire chief at the time) they had determined who had set it, but they were already in jail (serving a sentence of 10 years) in Massachusetts so they didn’t pursue it.  The fire marshal advised it wasn’t worth pursuing,” Dolloff said.

The name of the individual alleged to be responsible for the fire was not available at the time of press.

Despite the shock and tragedy, the community of Hudson was quick to respond with the overwhelming question of what to do with 1,200 high school students from both Hudson and Litchfield.  An emergency meeting was held the next day.  The school board, school administrators, Newell Paire the New Hampshire Commissioner of Education, and his deputy Bob Brunelle all met to start an action plan to find a place for the students.

After looking into several venues to use for a temporary facility, the group chose St. Francis Church’s school in Nashua.

“We had to get those kids back in.  The biggest part of the project was finding another school building we could use and we were able to get St. Francis,” Dolloff said.

The school had been closed for a while and was not being used at the time.  Parents and teachers from Hudson volunteered to come in and clean the school up and get it ready for use again.

“They (St. Francis) were a little hesitant at first because they weren’t sure what kind of problem they would have in the neighborhood having all these kids there.  We then showed them that we would be able to bus the kids right in and out and they wouldn’t be just hanging around there,” Dolloff said.

Acceding to Dolloff, Hudson’s fourth graders were then relocated to St. Francis to create room at Memorial School for double sessions, which were allowed by the state due to the emergency situation.  The first session lasted from 7 to 12 in the morning for the middle school students.  Then the high school students came in during the afternoon from 12 to 5:30.

Overall, the high school students only missed a week out of school before their transfer to Memorial.  Jasper describes the transition as “quick” and “effective.”  He also admits the conditions were not the same as before, but were as well as could be expected considering the situation.

“We had classrooms in the gym.  They used portable chalkboards to create an open concept classroom.  It was awful being there because it was noisy.  The acoustics weren’t designed for it.”

The next step for the town was to rebuild the 80 percent of the high school that had been destroyed with a price tag of $5 million in damages.

A special school district meeting was then held to discuss going before the town to request a $2 million bond for part of the cost.  The bond was then unanimously approved.

“We had a big turnout for the special school district meeting,” Dolloff said.  “In those days we held the special school district meetings in the Memorial school gymnasium.  I’d say it was packed to capacity of around 1,000.  There was a lot of emotion; people really wanted to get the schools going normally.”

The $2 million was then combined with insurance money, around $80,000 from the Alvirne Trustees, and state building aid to pay for the reconstruction.  The state building aid was normally reserved to fund new school construction, however, an exception was allowed due to the immediate need for reconstruction.

Many residents credit the speed of the reconstruction to those who did the work on it.  Irving Hersey, who designed the first building in 1950, agreed to help design the reconstruction to make it look like the same building.  Davidson Construction did the construction work, and Hudson resident Leonard Smith also helped as an architect and contractor.  Smith’s other projects in town include the Leonard Smith Fire Station and the original town hall.

“He not only knew the drawings and plans, but knew how to implement them.  He was the ideal person to make that project come together.  There is no doubt in my mind that the project wouldn’t have been completed in a year if it wasn’t for Lenny Smith,” Jasper said.

The finished product was ready for the opening day of school in September of 1975, and was widely appreciated by the community.  Many said it was even better than the first one.

“It was a great feeling walking into it the first time because the building was so new and clean.  We went from that old building that was nothing to write home about to this new state-of-the-art building,” Jasper said.

The building still stands to this day as more than just an award-winning high school in New Hampshire.  Its design and infrastructure is also a reminder of how 40 years ago a community came full circle from tragedy to triumph through unity and perseverance.