December fire at Hoxsey house caused by refrigerator malfunction, fire chief says

Owner of burned-down house hopes to repair over the summer

Saud Afzal Shafi

A three-bedroom house at 23 Hoxsey St. was severely damaged by a fire on Dec. 23. Three College students lived at the house, which is colloquially known among students as Teal House, but were away for winter break at the time of the fire. The students who had been renting the house, who are all seniors, declined to comment. 

According to Williamstown Fire Chief Craig Pedercini, the fire originated in the kitchen on the first floor and was caused by a malfunction in the refrigerator. There were no injuries, since the house was uninhabited at the time.

The Williamstown Fire Department (WFD) received a call about the fire at around 12:40 p.m. on Dec. 23, according to Pedercini, and then used its mutual aid network to call the North Adams, Pownal, and Clarksburg fire departments for assistance. Two construction workers working at the North Science Center at the time happened to be firefighters and also helped put out the fire.

Two firefighters began by entering the house through the front door to inspect where the fire was coming from. In the meantime, the team ventilated windows on the second floor to release the heat building up in the house. “As more [firefighters] arrived, we were able to pull another [hose] line … around to the side of the house to a door that goes into the kitchen directly, where the fire actually started,” Pedercini said.

“Between those two lines, and some backup people coming in to help out on those lines, they were able to knock the fire down,” Pedercini said. But by then, the fire had spread from the first floor to the second floor and the attic.

Pedercini attributed the quick spread of the fire to a lack of “fire-stopping,” a fire protection system used to seal openings and joints. He also cited the “balloon frame” construction of the house, which was built in the early nineteenth century. Balloon framing is a type of construction involving long, continuous pieces of lumber which go from the base to the top of the house.

“In today’s construction you wouldn’t have that,” Pedercini said. “If fire got in the wall in your kitchen today, if it went up the wall it would get stopped or slowed down.”

Pedercini worked with North Adams Fire Chief Steve Meranti to investigate the cause of the fire. “I came to the conclusion that … something went on with [the] compressor condenser part of the refrigerator, which is located at the very bottom of it on the backside,” Pedercini said. 

According to Pedercini, insurance company representatives agreed with his assessment.

The owner of the house, Paul Rinehart, plans to repair the house. “I have my personal hopes that it’s done by the end of the summer so that it would be ready for next year’s students in September,” Rinehart said.

However, he said he has his doubts about being able to adhere to that timeline. “Just because the insurance company is moving so slowly,” he added.

Rinehart’s family started living in the house in the ’70s. “My brothers and sisters and I grew up in the house,” he said. “And then I bought it from my father in the late ’80s and raised my family there.” After his children grew up, Rinehart began renting out the house.

“That whole neighborhood is an important part of [my] family,” Reinhart said. “We’ve watched a lot of changes come through there.”