Firefighters uncovered an electrical hazard during their last inspection of a downtown antique store where a Christmas Eve fire started, Lawrence Fire Department records show.
But it's unclear whether the hazard had anything to do with the fire, which broke out at The Chapman, 819 Vt., and destroyed three other businesses before it was extinguished.
Last May, a fire department inspector reported finding interlinked extension cords in the front room of The Chapman. Firefighters last week announced that the blaze started in or near electrical meters and a breaker box in a storage room behind the front room.
Fire Chief Jim McSwain said that until an investigator determines exactly what caused the fire, it will be unclear whether the problem noted in May had anything to do with the blaze. McSwain also said firefighters had not found a problem with wiring in the storage room where the fire started.
Inspection records do not indicate whether the problem was corrected, and Clyde Chapman, owner of The Chapman, could not be reached for comment.
INSPECTION records show that firefighters found electrical problems in every inspection of the building since 1987. Firefighters inspected the building once a year in accordance with department inspection guidelines.
In 1987, an inspector noted substandard wiring and ordered it to be repaired. McSwain said that problem later was rectified by wiring improvements in the back room of the first floor of the building.
In June 1988, inspectors noted that "lighting fixtures have improper wiring."
And in 1989, an inspector recorded another wiring hazard and told the occupants to remove all extension cords without built-in breakers.
The records from 1987 through 1989 show the occupant of the building as the Consumer Affairs Assn. The Chapman was listed as the occupant in last year's inspection.
IN THREE of the four inspections, firefighters reported that a fire extinguisher had not been properly serviced.
McSwain said that besides the problem noted in 1987 and later corrected, he was aware of no other violations related to the building's wiring system. The owner of the building, Frances Miller of Lawrence, said her son, a licensed electrician, made electrical improvements to the building before she rented it to Chapman.
McSwain said current evidence doesn't prove whether the problem uncovered most recently could have contributed to the fire.
That determination, he said, can only be made by an electrical expert who is studying the meters and breaker box to determine how the fire started.
The fire was reported at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 24. Firefighters battled the blaze for about two hours before bringing it under control. But the fire continued to burn through Christmas Eve night, and firefighters remained at the scene until Dec. 26 pumping water on hotspots and watching for flareups.
THE FIRE destroyed The Chapman and the buildings on either side the Miller Print Shop, 821 Vt., and a three-story building housing Alley Cat Records, 817 Vt., and Systems Integration, a computer store, 815 Vt.
Investigators estimated the damage total at $330,900.
The Downtown Lawrence business organization is asking its members to contribute funds for Chapman, whose business was not insured.
Andy Ramirez, newly elected Downtown Lawrence president, said anyone wishing to contribute funds may contact the Downtown Lawrence business office, 729 Mass, at 842-3883. Ramirez also said the Downtown Lawrence organization has established a fund for The Chapman at the First National Bank of Lawrence, Ninth and Massachusetts.
At its monthly meeting Tuesday, the Downtown Lawrence board of directors discussed ways to help downtown businesses that were affected by the Dec. 24 fire.
The buildings housing The Chapman and the Miller Print Shop sustained a total of $35,000 damage in the fire, according to fire department estimates. The businesses also suffered $80,000 in damage to their contents, firefighters said.