HAMPTON — Jill St. Cyr climbed through her window onto the deck of her Ashworth Avenue apartment and leapt eight feet down to the top of an attached laundromat, escaping the flames of a blaze creeping toward her apartment.
“I just went for it,” said St. Cyr, 47, who was using crutches Friday, recovering from the sprained ankle caused by the leap from her third-floor unit the night before. “There was no time to hesitate. It was going up so quick that it was do or die at that point.”
The three-alarm blaze at 37 Ashworth Ave., reported just after 10 p.m. Thursday, displaced five people including St. Cyr and her husband, 55-year-old Dennis Whipple. Five residents occupied four of the six 2-bedroom apartments on the structure’s second and third floors. They were assisted by the Red Cross, which helped them get shelter, groceries and other needs.
St. Cyr said the Red Cross gave her and her husband a debit card and a hotel room for one to two nights following the fire. One tenant lived with service animals, according to the building’s owner Bob Preston, though he did not know Friday if the animals survived.
The three-story building, the first floor of which housed a soup kitchen run by St. Vincent de Paul of Hampton, is expected to be demolished next week, according to Preston. Soup kitchen organizers said they were meeting Friday to determine what options they had for a future site. They said they were not optimistic they would be able to keep serving through the end of their current season, which wraps up in May. The soup kitchen normally runs Monday through Friday, 5 to 7 p.m.
The cause of the fire is under investigation, state fire marshal investigator Shana Clark said Friday morning. The laundromat attached to the building, Seawash Laundry, is expected to remain in place but will be closed for several months, Preston said, due to smoke damage.
St. Cyr said she heard a woman who lived in another apartment yelling “fire” when the flames first struck, and she then opened her back door to see that the hotel’s entire parking lot was illuminated as sparks flew from the building.
At first, she thought the fire was in another building, but when she opened the sliding door to her deck, she realized it was her building.
“It was so filled with smoke,” said St. Cyr. “That’s when I jumped off the balcony onto the laundromat roof.”
Whipple was on the phone with St. Cyr, when she realized the fire was taking place and urged her to make the jump, he said. He rushed home, having been working out of state. He and St. Cyr were examining their space with Preston Friday afternoon to determine the extent of their losses.
Wind created a “bellows” like effect on the fire, the second and third floors engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived, according to Hampton Fire Chief Jameson Ayotte. A stack of smoke rose over the beach from the building for more than an hour after the fire began, visible from far away.
Ayotte said the fire could have spread to other buildings due to the wind if not for the work of the nine on-duty firefighters who responded, assisted by numerous other Seacoast fire departments. Past Hampton Beach fires have taken out entire blocks of buildings, like the blaze that destroyed the original Old Salt building and numerous other businesses in 1999.
The first three firefighters who arrived from the beach station on Brown Avenue to Ashworth Avenue were tasked with rescuing people inside the building, and the remainder who came from headquarters on Winnacunnet Road went to quick work on the fire itself, Ayotte said. Two lieutenants who were off-duty also rushed from home to the scene, he said.
“Without that rapid fire attack, we would have definitely had a much bigger situation here that would have been hard to handle,” said Ayotte.
The bulk of the fire that engulfed the building was knocked down in an hour, but not before causing damage to abutting properties, where siding was melted and windows were broken.
Preston said his units in the building, named the Seawalk Suites, were recently improved with new furniture and set to be rented this summer as they had been since Preston bought the building in 1986. He said the building was remodeled shortly after it was taken over, and he believes it was among the beach’s hotel options that provided vacationers quality amenities.
“The unfortunate part, from my point of view, is that it’s another good building that burned,” said Preston. “We were looking forward to a good summer.”