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55 Coombs St. ruin is razed

Fire-damaged building meets wrecking crane

A crane is maneuvered around the rear of the 55 Coombs St. ruins as the former apartment building was torn down Monday. Gus Steeves. (click for larger version)
August 03, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — After more than 18 months of attracting feral cats and mold, the burned shell of 55 Coombs St. came down Monday in a cloud of dust.

"It's exciting to see it come down," said neighbor Julie Amaral. "Our two kids sat out on the porch this morning and watched it."

What they would have seen was a large crane from Industrial Dismantling Corp. rumble down behind the three-story apartment building and start ripping large sections of the wall apart. By 3 p.m., the building was about half demolished from back to front, shattered ends of burned beams getting shorter with every passing few minutes.

"I'm glad it's coming down because there's a lot of stray cats, and they've been hanging around our porch," said her boyfriend, Carlos Roman. "Now they won't be there."

The landlord of 61 Coombs, on the other side of the building, was also troubled by the cats there.

Paul Knutsen of Hebron, Conn., said he has spoken to the town several times about rounding up the 50-plus cats. He said he hopes the 55 Coombs demolition doesn't simply drive them into his own basement.

In general, Knutsen said the burned building's decrepitude has made it impossible to fill the vacant apartments in his house, which currently has three tenants.

"I've gotten a non-response to For Rent signs," he admitted. "The fact that place has been there the last two years has cost me thousands of dollars in lost rental opportunities."

He said he has had good communication with Building Inspector Nick Tortis, and therefore understands why it has taken so long, but still finds the delay "a bit aggravating."

That delay has an all-too-common cause — bankruptcy. Town assessing records still list 55 Coombs as being owned by Brian Rickman of Marlborough, but Rickman long ago admitted he could not afford to demolish the building and was moving to sell it, along with his other Southbridge property, 110 Pine St.

That situation forced the town to take a more complicated route to bring it down — getting a court order, then attaching the cost of the project ($24,450) to the property as a lien.

Tortis said there's "nothing out of the ordinary" about this demolition. It all came down Monday, and would take "a couple days by the time they crunch it all up."

"By the end of the week, nobody will be able to see there'd ever been a building there," he said. If Rickman eventually sells it, the new owner will have to pay off the lien first, and then will only be able to rebuild it as a two-family home, Tortis added.

Regarding the cats, Tortis said Animal Control Officer Kathy Shields has visited the site several times, and found they aren't actually feral.

"Most of the cats have collars on them," he said. "When she went in, they all ran across the street and into other houses."

Roman said he has seen people taking things out of 55 Coombs in the past, and evidence of young people throwing rocks through its windows in the last week or so. Tortis said he has had to resecure the place a few times since the fire, but there was no sign (other than broken windows) of anything in recent months.

The six-apartment building burned Jan. 24, 2008, in a fire that seems to have started in a second floor bathroom heater's faulty wiring. Most of the damage was on the second and third floors in the back half of the house, but all of the human residents escaped without injuries. Most of the resident animals did as well, but one cat died.

A key factor in the fire's speed was the building's "balloon-type construction," in which the walls are essentially hollow between the support columns, giving fire a lot of space to move, fire officials said after the incident. Such construction was quite common in wooden buildings until the mid-1950s, when it was largely replaced by the sturdier platform framing method. It has since become more common in recent years for buildings to be constructed using steel frames.

"The sooner it's gone, the better I'll feel because public safety problem is gone," Tortis said Monday.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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