Repair business burns, community rescues
By Ray Duckler Concord Monitor
Permission to reprint given by the author. Published: 4/22/2022
Mark Donovan and Roy Ballou are unclear about their next move.
Essentially, they lost everything in a three-alarm fire on Depot Street in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, last week. Their hot-tub repair business on the first floor, gone. Their home and all their belongings on the second floor, gone as well.
What remains beyond the charred wreckage — and what will probably stay fresh in their minds for a long time — is the kindness this couple experienced after escaping the flames. They fought back tears during a recent interview, touched by the strangers who sought to make their lives simpler.
There was the guy who gave Donovan a shirt and his own shoes as firefighters battled the early-morning blaze. And the guy who carried Ballou, suffering from minor burns to his right arm and smoky lungs, to safety and placed him gently on the nearby grass. And the woman who texted Donovan, telling him that they could sleep in her spare bedroom at her farm.
They don’t recall all the names of the people who cared enough to act. At least not all of them, lost in a traumatic set of circumstances. But when your life has gone up in smoke, a helping hand feels like a firm embrace.
That’s why they called the Monitor, a Concord, New Hampshire Daily Newspaper. They wanted others to know what local people did for them. They didn’t want them to go unnoticed, names or not.
“The people of Pittsfield are just amazing,” Donovan said. “Pittsfield is a working-class community, with down-to-earth people. We did not feel like strangers. People nod at you.”
The Pittsfield Fire Department received the emergency call just past 7:30 a.m. Wednesday,April 20, and was joined by crews from nine other stations.
No one was seriously hurt, but the two-story building emerged with blackened brick, broken windows, and a car parked out front with its hood and driver’s-side door burnt and melted.
Five residents escaped from the three upstairs apartments, according to Pittsfield Fire Chief Peter Pszonowsky. Two were taken by ambulance to the hospital, including Ballou, who went to Massachusetts General Hospital for treatment on his arm and lungs. He was released later that same night.
Meanwhile, the brick building at 8 Depot was a total loss, and that means Donovan, Ballou, and the other residents will have to start from scratch. They need a new place to live. They need to re-open their business someplace else.
“All I wanted to do was put that fire out,” Ballou said. “We had no insurance and a lot to lose. Most everything that was important was gone.”
Anthony Booth, an investigator from the Office of the State Fire Marshal, said that the fire remains under investigation and a cause may never be determined, adding that there’s no evidence of arson.
“It started in the left corner of the first floor,” Booth said. “There was a significant collapse of the second floor, so it was not safe to dig out or remove anything.”
Three soft hot tubs were destroyed during the fire. Two others were not damaged. But the psychological effect of the incident was severe.
Donovan and Ballou had started their business two years ago in Henniker. They said they discovered a market for repairs, which saved customers money that, in the past, they might have spent on a new unit.
“People would come from all over because no one else could service their tubs,”Donovansaid.“Itfellintoourlap.”
They used trial and error to figure out how to replace a pump and smooth out wrinkles in the vinyl. They bought a Singer industrial sewing machine to connect the pieces. Ballou taught himself how to use it.
A rental increase and expansion of another business recently pushed the couple into Pittsfield, where they found a place to live and operate their business, all in the same building.
They called themselves the odd couple, one sloppy like Oscar Madison (Donovan), the other neat like Felix Unger (Ballou).
They clicked and said that business was good, that they’d buy a damaged tub for a few hundred dollars, fix it, then sell it for $1,500 or more.
They had nothing left (after the fire), and they slept in their van for a while.
A pastor, Rev. Daniel Osgood of the Congregational Covenant Church in Greenfield, heard about their misfortune and offered to let them stay at the efficiency apartment attached to the church.
“A woman had just moved out and they lost everything,” the pastor said. “I told them they could stay for a couple of weeks.”
That’s their home. For now. They plan on re-opening their business, somewhere, somehow. “I am not a quitter,” Ballou said.
They wanted to make sure that the people, the strangers, who helped them received some credit. After the fire, Donovan stood outside in the early-morning cold with no shirt and no shoes.
A resident returned from his home and gave Donovan a shirt and sweatshirt. The shoes he brought were too small.
He asked what size I am and I told him 11,” Donovan said. “He said these are nines, so he took his shoes off his feet and gave them to me. They were a 12.”
“Look,” he continued, “I’m wearing them right now.”