Jan. 18—SALISBURY — More than two dozen people were left homeless after a nine-alarm blaze tore through Michael's Oceanfront Motel and a neighboring apartment complex early Monday.
A state Department of Transportation employee called 911 after spotting smoke and flames on Central Avenue shortly before 2 a.m., according to the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services.
Four residential buildings and the motel were destroyed, according to state fire officials. Two occupants of the motel escaped safely while some of the residences were unoccupied seasonal properties.
Salisbury Fire Chief Scott Carrigan said the fire escalated quickly due to high wind.
"The buildings caught fire and were completely consumed within a very short amount of time," Carrigan said. "It seems like minutes because of the winds."
State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey said in a press release that exactly where and how the fire began are still under investigation.
Some nearby buildings were also damaged. The blaze is being investigated by the Salisbury Fire Department and the State Police Fire & Explosion Investigation Unit assigned to the Fire Marshal's Office.
North End Boulevard resident Dan Kelley said he was asleep and awoke to the blaring of sirens and the sound of loud popping about 2 a.m.
"The fire was fully involved," Kelley said. "It was a horrible, horrible experience."
He said strong gusts off the ocean seemed to push the fire north toward the marsh.
"It was raining embers," Kelley said. "There were a lot of shingles that were on fire and flying through the sky. A couple of houses around the corner caught a little bit of charring on them and the Fire Department had to check one of them out."
More than 100 firefighters and roughly 30 fire trucks from Salisbury and communities throughout Essex County and southern New Hampshire responded to the fire. They battled the blaze in light snow and then rain.
"We had 27 departments in total — Ipswich, Haverhill, Exeter, New Hampshire — it was quite an extensive list," Carrigan said. "There were two very large buildings involved and it took a lot of time to get the sufficient resources on scene to tackle that.
"In the meantime, the fire extended because of the winds," he added. "We are actually very fortunate that we didn't have more properties lost."
Firefighters fought the blaze for roughly eight hours. But Carrigan said the fire was mostly contained by 5 a.m.
"There were still some embers firing up at that point but it was pretty much contained," Kelley said.
Two neighbors who did not wish to be identified said the aluminum siding of their condominium melted because of the fire's intense. The property housed Michael's Oceanfront Motel as well as four residences, one of which contained apartments for low-income residents.
The more than two dozen people displaced by the blaze are being assisted by the American Red Cross of Massachusetts and The Salvation Army.
"It was a long night, absolutely," Kelley said.
Firefighters dealt with gusts so strong that veteran firefighter John Judson said they blew his helmet "right off my head."
Judson, a retired Salem, New Hampshire, fire captain, is the deputy fire chief in Plaistow, New Hampshire.
Plaistow firefighters were among the mutual aid firefighters who responded to Salisbury to help Massachusetts firefighters quell the inferno.
"When we got there, all the original buildings had collapsed and were on the ground," Judson said.
"Our crew ended up ... flowing water onto the piles of rubble," he said. "The wind was incredible."
The deputy chief's gear was left coated with beach sand due to the conditions they endured. There had been a high tide shortly before midnight — about two hours before the fire broke out.
The Plaistow Fire Department sent its tower truck on the seventh alarm. The blaze would reach nine alarms.
The Methuen Fire Department sent Engine 6 from its North End station to help in Salisbury.
Methuen Fire Chief Tim Sheehy said it was "lucky it was raining" or they could have lost a lot more houses.
Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.