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No deaths or serious injuries have been reported, but the blaze tore through part of a city block and burned with such ferocity that the flames could literally be heard roaring. White smoke could be seen rising for at least 10 miles.
As many as 380 people were evacuated, said Lawrence Mayor Michael J. Sullivan. He said the included both those left homeless and people from neighbouring homes whose power had been cut as a precaution. Twenty-six apartments were destroyed or damaged by the blaze, authorities said.
The fire near the corner of Market and Parker streets was first reported at 2:30 a.m., not far from the Lawrence commuter rail station. It appears to have begun in the Millennium nightclub, which was under renovation.
"The fact that the fire began in a vacant building does raise red flags for us," said State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan. "We are treating this as a suspicious fire."
The nightclub had utilities and the walls were bare, which allowed the flames to spread quickly, Coan said.
The fire has been contained but burned so hot through the morning that steel building frames turned white. Just before midday, ladder trucks were still pouring water down on smoldering triple deckers and orange flames continued to leap from the crater that had once been a building.
The structures that burned included 26 apartments in at least 10 residential buildings and two businesses, fire officials said. Lawrence Police Chief John Romero said one person was treated for minor smoke inhalation. By early afternoon, 54 people were at the Red Cross crisis centre in a Lawrence school, most of them expected to stay the night. Red Cross officials estimated that another 100 people lost their homes but planned to stay with family or friends.
Efforts to quell the fire have been hampered by temperatures hovering near 12 degrees and 10-mile-an-hour winds. Several streets were closed most of the morning, including Route 114. Fire-fighters from at least 13 cities and towns responded.
Deputy Chief Paul J. Parisi of Salem, N.H. said that frigid temperatures and strong winds made it hard to pump water, sending spray from hoses back at fire-fighters. "That is part of fighting fires in New England," Parisi said with icicles dangling from his helmet.
Lawrence Fire Chief Peter Takvorian said that he believes it is the largest fire in the city since the blaze in December 1995 that destroyed Malden Mills.