Owners of summer cottages in a tight-knit Christian community gathered to console each other Monday after a massive fire roared through the property on Easter Sunday, destroying dozens of buildings that brought families together for generations.
"It's dust. You don't see timber. You see dust," said Patrick Knittel of Concord. All that remained of his family's cottage was a chimney and a stone stairway leading to a mound of ashes.
Knittel and others who owned the 40 cottages that were destroyed or heavily damaged at the 146-year-old Alton Bay Christian Conference Center gathered as fire investigators tried to figure out what sparked the flames that raced through the community, claiming building after building.
"It was like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom," said Cynthia Bohy, 70, who lives nearby and watched the flames after attending church at the center earlier in the day. Some of the blasts were from propane tanks. Others, she said, seemed to be cottages just exploding into flames. "It was like explosions every two minutes."
Bohy stood in almost the exact spot Sunday as she did in August 1945, when another fire devastated the property, claiming about half of the 440 cottages there at the time, and causing about 1,000 people to run for their lives.
"I thought, 'Oh no, not again,'" she said Monday.
Fire officials don't believe Sunday's fire was suspicious.
'Like living in the past'Unlike the 1945 conflagration, the cottages destroyed Sunday were not occupied because the summer camping season has not yet begun.
"I'm just thankful that it wasn't later in the season and people weren't up here sleeping," said Patrick Knittel's wife, Amy. She has spent summers at the center since she was 13. "It just went up really quickly and there was no way everybody would have gotten out."
One firefighter was injured when a propane tank exploded; he was hospitalized in stable condition. Others were treated for smoke inhalation or exhaustion.
"It was a huge red inferno," Emmy Pijoan, who has worked at the conference center, told the New Hampshire Union Leader. "The fire people were dwarfed by the fire. The fire trucks looked like toys compared to the fire."
Others described the earth shaking as propane tanks exploded.
"You could feel it in your chest, then you saw the shrapnel fly up in the sky," Brendan Belleau told WMUR-TV.
The center's approximately 140 cottages are close together in a network of narrow roads on wooded hill overlooking scenic Alton Bay on Lake Winnipesaukee. Many are small, rustic wooden cabins. Others are one or two-story structures.
Peter Sylvester of Loudon said nothing recognizable was left at his family cottage, except a picnic table outside that did not burn.
He said some families arrive at the property in May or June and stay through the summer. Others come for vacations and rent their cottages the rest of the time.
"The kids are out all day into the night, tons of kids having fun and doing what kids did when we were young," he said. "This is like living in the past a little bit."
His mother-in-law's neighboring cottage was destroyed, but others owned by his mother and brother were spared.
Russ Sample, 55, of Alton, who has spent every summer of his life at the center, said individual families own the cottages, but the center owns the land.
"They are all born-again Christian families," he said.
Sample believe something good will come of their loss.
"It's just another great project we'll all be working on in the next few months," he said.
The center's Web site says its purpose is to change lives in part by "encouraging commitment to Jesus."
The center, founded in 1863, is on the southeastern corner of the lake about 30 miles northeast of Concord. It also features a 70-room motel and a park for recreational vehicles.