LEOMINSTER — A six-alarm blaze tore through the old Columbia Hotel in the heart of this north central Massachusetts city late Saturday night, injuring two firefighters when a portion of the building collapsed, a fire official said.
Leominster Fire Chief Robert Sidleau said the fire began around 10 p.m. in the front portion of the building at 65 Main St. The building houses 20 apartment units as well as businesses including an arts center, a tavern, and the Leominster office of the Fitchburg-based Sentinel & Enterprise newspaper.
Brisk winds pushed the flames and smoke through the back of the downtown building, significantly damaging the structure, said Sidleau.
The firefighters were injured while in a bucket on a ladder truck when a wall collapsed onto them, Sidleau said. They were transported to the Health Alliance Hospital in Leominster and medics told him they appear to be okay, he said. No residents were hurt in the incident and all made it out of the building safely, he said.
Flames continued to burst through a section of the roof of the building early Sunday morning, and firefighter continued to battle the blaze.
Residents from surrounding neighborhoods crowded around the scene staring at the flames and smoke.
Ray Alicea, 29, who lives two blocks from the building, said he saw a portion of the building collapse late Saturday night onto the firefighters.
“I saw a couple of firefighters with the ladder and then the whole thing came down,’’ said Alicea.
Dean Gaudet, 48, who also lives nearby, said he was around the corner staring at the fire when some of the back wall crumbled.
“It was just a loud bang,’’ Gaudet said. “You could see the telephone poles move. It knocked down all the wires.’’
Caroline LaCourse, 43, who said she lives two doors down from the hotel, went out to Main Street when there was only smoke coming from the building. She said she saw the conditions quickly worsen.
“The smoke started coming pouring out all the sides,’’ she said.
The Leominster fire officials called in mutual aid from more than a dozen surrounding cities and towns, Sidleau said, including Fitchburg and Shirley.
Standing on Main Street as an easterly wind blew thick gray smoke through downtown Leominster, Sidleau said the fire was the biggest during his time at the local department. The chief has worked for the Leominster Fire Department for 31 years and called the building on main Street a cornerstone of the community.
“It’s the historic Columbia Hotel,’’ he said. “It’s going to be devastating.’’
Fire officials said they did not know what had caused the fire and would investigate. The State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan was on scene in Leominster early Sunday morning and said his office would assist with the investigation.
The Sentinel and Enterprise has had a Leominster bureau that works in a storefront office of the Columbia Hotel building, the publication’s editor Charles St. Amand wrote in an email. Two reporters normally work out of the building’s office, but no one was there when the fire started, St. Amand said.
The former hotel building now includes apartments on its upper levels, businesses below, and a recently restored grand ballroom, the weekly Leominster Champion newspaper reported earlier this month. The first floor establishments included the Leominster Arts Center and the Columbia Tavern, the oldest tavern in the city, according to the newspaper. It said the hotel opened in 1892 to serve travelers at an adjacent train depot.