A few years back, I was walking into Montpelier’s co-op when a man walking out said, ‘Hey, you used to come in my bar all the time.’ He was Ray McNeill, a brewer and musician. In the 1980s and ’90s when I lived in Brattleboro, I spent many evenings at Three Dollar Dewey’s, the bar Ray and his wife owned, and then at McNeill’s when the brewery opened. This weekend, McNeill’s Brewery in Brattleboro burned. Ray McNeill perished in the total loss fire.
I’m not at all a fan of Facebook, but I’m included the passage below from Ray’s daughter Eve Nyrhinen. A passionate man, with a good heart, Ray is deeply mourned. And while, sadly, each tragedy is unique, this eloquent piece is reminder that decency and kindness endure.
I’m Ray’s daughter. I’d like to share some details and dispel some rumors about Ray Mcneill‘s death. He was told in June that due to the structural instability of the building, the fire department would not be able to send a crew in there safely if a fire were to break out. There hadn’t been a fire in his 30-some years there, and he had an extensive sprinkler system, so he chose to stay. Anyone who loved him knew that you couldn’t tell that man what to do.
He knew he couldn’t open the bar this winter, and he didn’t need to be there for construction (in fact, he was told the renovations would be easier if he moved out) so he booked a tiny beach house in Baja, and planned to drive out here to Reno to spend some time with his grandkids and then drive on to there. He drained the sprinkler system so the pipes wouldn’t freeze while he was gone. He had “a few more errands” to do, and there were storms rolling into the Rockies and around Reno this weekend, so he stayed a few extra days. It never occurred to anyone that it was unsafe for him to stay in his apartment after the sprinkler system had been drained.
The fire likely started from an old multi-port electrical outlet behind his TV, next to stacks of magazines. He was probably asleep when it happened, as he’d told several people he was going to bed shortly before. From the scene, it looks like he awoke to an apartment full of smoke and fire, and between the smoke and carbon monoxide he only made it to the top of the stairs before he collapsed. My understanding is that smoke and carbon monoxide poisoning makes a person giddy, happy, and unafraid in their last few moments, and I’d like to think that his death was like this, as peaceful as a death by fire could be. His body was not burned, and he was not trapped. It took at least 90 minutes for the fire department to break through the right part of the roof to sight him, and at that point they were certain he was dead. Due to concerns that the recently-burned and completely-soaked wood floor might collapse, they couldn’t risk a firefighter’s life to check. They even brought in an engineer to try to emergently assess the situation, and were told they needed to wait for a team to come in the morning before broaching the scene.
I was an EMT in college, and the one cardinal, inviolable rule was that you do not proceed onto a scene until it is cleared for safety. You cannot risk losing a second life. My heart goes out to the firefighter who had to climb back down that ladder and tell the crowd they’d done everything they could. As a doctor, I remember the names and families of every patient I have failed to save. Each one was followed by months where I tortured myself with alternate scenarios where they might have lived. The truth is, we do our very best with the information we have at the time. They didn’t know he was up there – none of us knew for sure, and there was some confusion at the scene about whether he was in Mexico already. Had they known, they still would have had to proceed in the same manner. I promise you no one in that fire station wanted my father to die. There is something called Second Victim Syndrome, which describes the way a doctor tortures themselves after the death of a patient they failed to save. I’m sure firefighters experience it too. I hope they are not haunting themselves with the what-ifs. Please extend your love and support to the Brattleboro Fire Department. They followed protocol. They made decisions that might have prevented losing a second young hero’s life.
The building was torn down immediately because it was a risk to the community. What if another fire had broken out? What if people had ventured in? Yes, they drove an excavator onto the main floor to demolish it, demonstrating that the foundation was sound enough for that, but their real concerns were the top floor and roof, damaged by fire.
And no, the fire department did not put things from the bar out on the sidewalk for anyone to take. They entrusted what could be saved to a few individuals, with my blessing, and those things are being stored until my sibling and I can go through them.
Our community is in mourning. I’ve heard rumors that my dad committed suicide, setting the fire because he knew the fire department wouldn’t go up there. I’ve heard outrage that the fire department didn’t “save him.” I’ve heard conspiracy theories about how they tore down the building to cover up their mistakes. These sensational fantasies and lies are not helpful to a small town dealing with a large tragedy. Please have some grace for everyone involved and the difficult decisions they had to make, with limited time, limited information, and high stakes. Please believe that everyone did their best, and extend your support to *everyone* involved. I know my dad would have.