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Fire at iconic Shaw's Motel in Northampton prompts officials to declare a crime scene

  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Shaw's Motel, 87 Bridge Street, Northampton.
  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Shaw's Motel, 87 Bridge Street, Northampton.

Once they’d crowbarred their way inside — the ramshackle building is condemned with its doors and windows boarded up — firefighters put out the fire on the first floor in short order, according to Deputy Chief Jon Davine.

“They had a pretty quick stop,” said Davine.

A small section of Bridge Street was closed from about 6:50 until 9:15 so firefighters could stretch massive water supply lines from the hydrant across the street to the motel.

Nobody was hurt. Northampton Fire Capt. Thomas Clark said it took about 20 to 30 minutes to get the fire out. He said it’s too soon to tell what caused it, but noted that investigators will be working to determine the cause.

The building had no electricity in it and no working gas lines, Clark said.

He said it seemed as if nobody had been in the building recently, but that is one factor investigators were trying to pin down.

“It was a building that had been boarded up. There was stuff in a lot of the rooms,” Clark said.

With the fire out, firefighters carrying axes and crowbars then went door to door on the outer walkway of the former rooming house’s first and second floors and climbed up to the third floor, prying open windows and doors to make sure there was no trace of fire left.

“The fire seemed to be mostly in the walls so I had the guys open up the walls and use water and foam” to douse the fire, said Clark, the officer in charge at the scene. “There was an awful lot of smoke, so that made it hard to find the fire.”

Once the fire was out on the first floor, firefighters searched the basement, the second floor and an attic space on the third floor.

“The guys did a great job getting it out,” said Clark. In addition to 15 Northampton firefighters, there were four each from the Amherst and Easthampton departments, he said.

Clark said the firefighters cut a hole in the roof to let out hot gases and smoke, though there was no fire in the attic space.

With Bridge Street closed from the corner near Pomeroy Terrace back to the post office, and the area cordoned off with yellow police tape, small knots of onlookers from the neighborhood stood watching.

“This neighborhood is really on edge,” said Gerald Budger, of 127 Bridge St.

The Ward 3 neighborhood around Hawley Street was victimized by a series of arson fires from 2007 to 2009, which prompted widespread neighborhood concern and fear among residents. Budger said he approached an officer at the scene and told him: “I would hope that you would find out and get the word out quickly.”

Northampton resident Anthony Baye is facing trial next month on multiple charges of arson and murder in connection with arson fires in 2009, including one that killed two men, Paul Yeskie Sr., 81, and his son, Paul Yeskie Jr., 39 in their Fair Street home Dec. 27, 2009.

Northampton Building Commissioner Louis Hasbrouck was on scene, which Clark said is routine for structure fires. “He can help tell us if there are structural problems we could avoid,” Clark said.

Davine said the site had been declared a crime scene and would be cordoned off until this morning at 8 to allow investigators to search the property to determine cause.

Clark said firefighters will also stay on the scene to make sure there are no flare-ups.

Shaw’s Motel, at 87-89 Bridge St., has been listed for sale since July 2010. In its heyday, it was owned and operated by Josephine Shaw, who oversaw the establishment for 62 years. She and her late husband, Donald, bought the property in 1949, when it was a tea room. They renovated it and opened it as a motel in 1951.

Years later, it became a haven for the mentally ill, and in 1994, Shaw’s Motel was featured in the PBS documentary series “Frontline,” in a show titled “A Place For Madness.”

In an interview with the Gazette in 1994, Shaw said she enjoyed renting rooms to people who were mentally ill, and they became like a family to her. She would watch out for them, she said.

“I was never afraid of them. If you treat them right, they got so they would trust you,” she said.

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