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ATF investigates site of James Hook blaze

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / June 1, 2008

Federal investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives joined city investigators yesterday in the search for clues as to what sparked the early-morning blaze that destroyed James Hook & Co.

Stephen MacDonald, Boston Fire Department spokesman, said the ATF sent extra agents to aid in the city's investigation, which was expected to continue through the weekend. The cause of the fire remains undetermined, he said.

"They're trying to come up with a point of origin, then they can come up with how [the fire] started," MacDonald said yesterday.

Firefighters at a station two blocks away from the business learned of the blaze when 911 calls began coming in shortly after 3 a.m. Friday. They arrived to find flames leaping from the roof of the wooden lobster shack and warehouse. Cardboard boxes used to ship lobster helped fuel the fire, which ultimately caused the corrugated metal roof of the building to collapse.

Yesterday, demolition workers driving large mechanical claws helped investigators in hardhats uncover buried and still smoldering piles of debris. They photographed various parts of the building, and MacDonald said that as part of their protocol, they would interview firefighters who were first on the scene and review the business's insurance records. ATF officials did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

The investigation is proceeding slowly because damage to the building is so severe that it has to be deconstructed carefully, MacDonald said.

Fire Department officials estimated $5 million in damage to the landmark, a stalwart of the local fishing industry that remained on Atlantic Avenue even as pricey hotels and high-rises rose up around it. It also left more than 100 employees, many Hook family members, unemployed. Edward Hook II, one of the owners, said he will reopen on the site.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he called Hook shortly after learning of the fire and offered him relocation space in the city's maritime industrial park. Hook and his brothers plan to meet with city officials tomorrow to see it.

"I wanted to try to get them back in business as soon as we could," Menino said in a phone interview yesterday. "It's a very competitive business, and they're an icon in this city."

Started in 1925, the rustic wooden exterior of Hook's looked like as if it belonged in rural Maine and belied the business's reputation as one of the largest lobster distributors in the country. Hook, a third-generation owner, said yesterday that he did not know the value of the site, a key waterfront location on Atlantic Avenue coveted by developers.

When asked whether he had insurance coverage, Hook shook his head. "I don't know about any of that," he said. "Right now I'm just concerned with getting reorganized and trying to stay in business."

That is no small task. More than 60,000 pounds of live lobster died in the fire. Among them were 600 2-pound lobsters headed to a country club event in Maryland. "They went up in smoke," Hook said.

Many trucks delivering lobster from Canada turned back after learning about the fire, making it difficult for Hook to fill orders. When a load of about 10,000 pounds of lobster arrived Friday, Hook said, local seafood distributors offered him space for them.

Hook's wife, Julie, said the family lost many of its most cherished photos in the blaze, including images of their forebears who started the business.

"That's one of the hardest things my husband is dealing with," she said. "It's the memories he'll never get back. That's a huge loss. It's part of your life gone."

Minutes later, a firefighter emerged from the rubble with a 5-foot-long golden lobster that had adorned the business's rooftop weathervane. Hook family members cheered and applauded at the sight of it. Its body was dented and scraped, but family members posed happily for pictures with it.

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