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After Fire, Pepperell Company Vows to Reopen

November 25, 2018

PEPPERELL -- Gears cover the floor. Icicles hang from bent and blackened shelves. A misshapen lump of plastic, once a computer, rests on a charred desk.

“That’s my command central,” said Lou Dabney, a manager at R.H. Willson’s auto salvage.

Or it was, until an 8-alarm fire raged through the 30,000-square-foot building on 44 North St. on Friday afternoon.

Despite the devastation the very next day owners, family members and employees were back at the salvage yard cleaning and prepping the yard for reopening.

“We’ll be open Monday for business,” said owner David Willson.

The on-premise auto repair store will move to an adjacent building and the office for the salvage yard will temporarily move to Jaw Sales in Hollis, N.H.

Managers and owners said the yard will resume accepting vehicles salvaged by insurance companies within days, as it has since Willson’s father founded the business in the 1950s.

Shortly after noon on Friday, employees were working on a Toyota 4Runner engine near a garage door inside the building.

“We were just working on a car in there,” Willson said. “We do it every day and one of the gas lines came off.”

Dabney said he was sitting in his office in another part of the building when he heard a commotion. He looked outside and saw flames, and employees trying to put the fire out.

“They almost had it out with the extinguishers and then it flared up,” Dabney said.

They called the fire department, which requested assistance from at least 17 companies across the region.

Four hours later the fire was under control, but crews stayed on scene until almost midnight, according to Fire Chief Toby Tyler.

They returned to building once more around 9:30 a.m. Saturday to tamp out a hot spot.

The site’s lack of water -- the nearest hydrant was more than a half-mile away -- posed the greatest challenge, according to Tyler.

Firefighters laid a four-inch line from the nearest fire hydrant seven-tenths of a mile away to the yard. A second five-inch line from a hydrant north of the yard, also piped in water.

Tankers arrived on-scene and pumped water from a nearby river.

“There was a parade of tanker trucks coming up to fill that water,” Dabney said.

The town’s Highway Department sanded the area, limiting the formation of ice on the ground, despite the chill temperatures, according to Tyler.

Due to the potential for oil contamination, the Department of Environmental Protection visited the scene, but did not find issue with the run-off. Tyler said another inspector was following-up.

No firefighters were injured. One employee was taken to the hospital as a precautionary measure, but quickly discharged.

Tyler said the fire department still needs to interview a few employees.

On Saturday, the interior of the main building was roped off with caution tape. Piles of debris, high shelves once containing parts and the silhouettes of burned engines, were visible from the exterior.

Dabney said the building is a total loss and will be demolished. Other parts of the business, including rows of wrecked cars parked outsidem were unscathed.

Dabney thanked the firefighters for their response and hard work.

“They really, really did a hell of a job with the tanker trucks, ” he said “All day long it’s all been well wishes from the neighbors, from the customers. ... People are very good in this community.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins

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