Crews battle fire at former hospital

Demolition worker cites blow torch accident
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Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Firefighters from the Shawano Area Fire Department get into position as black smoke comes off the roof of the former Shawano Medical Center.

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Smoke billows Monday afternoon from the roof of the former Shawano Medical Center after a fire broke out.

A demolition worker is taking responsibility for a fire that broke out Monday at the former Shawano Medical Center as crews were working to dismantle the vacant 85-year-old building.

Fire department officials said no injuries occurred in the fire, which started as witnesses reported seeing a demolition worker on the roof.

John Martin, part owner of demolition contractor Statewide Razing, said he accidentally ignited the fire while using a blow torch to cut through metal beams inside a mezzanine structure on the roof.

Martin said he tried to extinguish the blaze himself, but he had to flee the enclosed mezzanine for his own safety.

“I didn’t act fast enough,” he said. “Once it got beyond my control, it was just a matter of getting out of there.”

The rooftop mezzanine structure had once enclosed air-conditioning units and other mechanical systems at the north end of the hospital complex, located at 309 N. Bartlett St.

The fire, which began shortly before 3:30 p.m., filled the surrounding neighborhood with smoke that could be seen from several blocks away.

Nearby homeowner Al Dionne said he had just returned home and climbed out of his car when he saw demolition workers running toward the hospital’s north end, where smoke was pouring out of the building.

“I saw the flames and the smoke,” Dionne said. “It was completely black. The smoke actually caught my breath.”

Firefighters remained on the scene until after 10 p.m.

Neighbors and other onlookers gathered to watch the ironic spectacle of firefighters struggling to save the former hospital, only so demolition crews could finish tearing it down.

Shawano Mayor Jeanne Cronce joined the crowd of spectators and called the situation “amazing.”

“They were working so hard to take it down in a succinct way,” Cronce said. “It’s just one of those freak accidents, I guess.”

Battling the blaze with about 12 engines, ladders and other pieces of equipment, firefighters focused their efforts on spraying water down from towering ladders.

Chuck Felts, assistant chief of the Shawano Area Fire Department, said because the building was in the middle of demolition, officials decided not to send firefighting crews inside. Felts said fire damage was limited to the mezzanine structure.

No official cause of the blaze had been determined as of Tuesday, although Felts agreed that it was related to the demolition work going on.

The hospital, built in 1931, has been vacant since owner ThedaCare health system opened a new $50 million hospital last year at 100 County Road B. After redevelopment efforts failed for the old facility, city officials gave their blessing for demolition, which began about three months ago.

ThedaCare facilities director John Gijsen said he would attempt to complete his investigation of the fire by Wednesday and then give Statewide Razing the go-ahead to resume demolition.

Gijsen praised the response of firefighters who doused the blaze.

“The Shawano fire department did a wonderful job,” he said.

Neighbor Paul Romberg said he heard a loud noise come from the hospital and then noticed a worker on the roof, followed by smoke and flames a few minutes later.

Romberg, who has lived across the street for 40 years, recalled his disappointment at seeing the hospital property slowly deteriorate over the years. Before firefighters had the situation under control, he wondered if the fire might finish off the job once and for all.

“This was the most beautiful hospital,” he said. “It’s just a building now.”