'The best save that we've ever had'

2 college employees among about 125 volunteer firefighters who responded to Bennington College blaze

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BENNINGTON — For two local volunteer firefighters, a call at Bennington College last week hit close to home.

Andrew Cencini was in a staff meeting at about 1 p.m. a week ago today when he got the call that there was a fire at the college's historic administration building, known as the Barn.

He's a professor of computer science at the college — and, since 2012, a volunteer firefighter with the North Bennington Fire Department.

"You can tell sometimes by the tone of the voice of the dispatcher whether this is a routine call, or whether this is going to be something different," Cencini said Monday. "...I knew it was serious."

It was "one of the worst things that you ever have to face," he said. His wife was working in the Barn at the time of the fire.

Joe Vadakin, the college's locksmith, was in his key room. "I actually heard my boss screaming `the Barn's on fire!'" he recalled. "So I didn't need a radio."

Vadakin, the chief of Shaftsbury Fire Department, classified the fire as a serious one — and a "major save."

"The potential for loss, and not only the building but all the contents inside and everything that goes with the Barn — it was easily, in my estimation, the best save that we've ever had," he said.

Both Vadakin and Cencini responded right away; they were two of about 125 responding firefighters.

Cencini grabbed his supplies — pants, boots, helmet and other key gear — which he keeps in his car.

"In the time from getting here to the Barn — that's when you start thinking about, `okay, what is it in my training that I need to do, how are we going to deal with this,'" he said. "The calm just kind of washes over you, and then you just execute."

The first concern was for people's lives. He and two other firefighters searched the second floor of the southeast wing of the Barn, where the fire was concentrated. They popped locked doors, making sure no one was inside.

"We also knew that it was going to move fast," he said of the fire. "The structural characteristics of the building meant that it would carry out the walls and into the attic. We knew we had to make an aggressive interior attack as soon as possible."

The Barn, a horseshoe-shaped, two-story, wood-frame structure located in the center of campus, was built as a purely agricultural structure at the turn of the 20th century. It now contains classrooms, the college bookstore and various offices, including the president's office, provost and dean's office and the office of student life.     

By Cencini's second trip into the Barn during the fire, the light haze of smoke had changed — he couldn't see an inch in front of him.

As others fought upstairs, Vadakin focused on salvaging what he could of the building's artwork.

"Their initial attack coincided with me trying to get as much artwork out of there," he said. "I'm not an artist, so I wasn't sure what was the most expensive and what wasn't, so I was just grabbing everything I could think of."

He focused on the president's suite, which is on the first floor.

A recent training effort on hose advancement at the North Bennington Fire Department came in handy at the fire, as firefighters had to stretch 300 feet of hose full of water to fight the blaze, Cencini said.

"It's a lot harder than you'd think," he said. "Lots of twists and turns, lots of doors and stairs to deal with. It's something that's really worth practicing, and that's what we do at the fire service, is we practice and practice and practice, and hope we never have to use it."

Over a dozen other departments from New York and Vermont would arrive to help fight the fire, which was confirmed contained by about 2:45 p.m.

Cencini said the mutual aid response was "fantastic."

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"We really dumped the whole county onto the scene, and everybody helped out from far and wide," he said.

The response was really "municipal level," he said.

"It seemed like the fire trucks dropped right out of the sky," Vadakin said. "One minute, I'm inside, next minute they're setting up [lines]."

Investigators believe the fire at the Barn was accidental, caused either by the state of the aged wiring or by an errant nail from siding and trim work that had been ongoing. The damage has been estimated at $250,000.

One firefighter was injured pulling a hose off a truck. He was treated and released from the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

Both Vadakin and Cencini said they didn't know when the college last had a serious fire. But, they said, it was definitely a while ago.

Vadakin recalled fires in student rooms back when he first started working on campus.

"Candles were involved and whatnot," he said. "But I can't think of anything recently. It's been quite a while."

The Barn being on fire is like "your biggest fear coming true," Vadakin said.

One thing he's always been told, he said, is that structure fires start out small, but they always grow. And that's what happened at the Barn.

"...When I first got there — it was small," he said of the fire. "About the size of a softball. But when it took off — it was incredible to see it move that fast, inside the walls, up into the attic of the Barn."

The Barn's structure also presented some help to the firefighters, despite its wood frame and expansive attic.

"When you have a fire, it's always looking for oxygen," Vadakin said. "It's like an animal; it needs to breathe."

The cupolas acted like chimneys, preventing the fire from turning the corner into other parts of the building, where it would have been nearly impossible to contain, he said.

"So when these guys made their stand, in there to try to fight it, they had a chance," he said. "By hitting it quick and hard like they did — it put the fire out. If it had made that corner we would be having a different conversation right now."

Anything that could go right at that fire that day did, he said.

"That's usually not the case," he said. "It's usually just the opposite."

Vadakin has been chief in Shaftsbury for 19 years, and part of the department for 43 years total. He first became a junior firefighter as a teenager; his father was also a firefighter."My first reaction was `no, I don't want to do that,'" Vadakin said, recalling his initial reaction to his father asking if he wanted to be a junior firefighter. "I went to my first call, and then drills, got hooked. And then went from there."

Cencini calls firefighting a form of "extreme problem-solving" that challenges the mind and body.

"... I was fascinated by the work, and the ability to help out the community," he said. And, he said, there's such a sense of camaraderie.

"You always know in the fire service that if you need something, you always have someone you can call," he said. "It's like a second family."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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