By Juli McDonald

SALEM (CBS) – A massive fire burned through five buildings on Hancock Street in Salem Monday afternoon. Firefighters responded to 29 Hancock Street at about 3:40 p.m. It is believed the fire started in the rear of the building.

Fire crews faced some real challenges containing the fire, including strong winds and the proximity of the structures.

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“The fire was traveling very quickly,” Salem Fire Lt. Peter Schaeublin said. “Wind has been an issue for us a little bit with our aerial devices spraying water onto the structure. It’s been very difficult to get into the seat of the fire.”

Salem Police Chief Lucas Miller said the old wooden buildings are vulnerable.

“Salem had a terrible, terrible fire about 100 years ago – a little more than 100 years ago, 1914. So that’s always in the back of our minds,” Miller said. “I’m going to count us as very lucky today despite the damage.”

Firefighters reported a flashover in one of the buildings. “It’s just when everything in the room gets hot enough that everything in the room ignites all at once,” Lt. Schaeublin said. “A real, real dangerous situation for firefighters.”

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For Salem neighbors returning home Monday afternoon, their fears grew even from a mile away.

“I was actually coming home from work and could see the smoke in the distance,” Kristen Homan said. She told WBZ her partner and his young daughter were home when a fire began two doors down. Things got bad quickly. “He didn’t even smell the smoke,” Homan said. “He heard the fire engines and started to get her shoes on and his shoes on and by the time they did that they were knocking at the door to evacuate them.”

Firefighters say everyone is alive thanks to working smoke detectors and neighbors helping neighbors. They were frantically warning each other even before engines arrived.

“I heard somebody yell on the third floor. And then somebody said “fire!” So I just got out,” a resident said.

The state Fire Marshal’s office is assisting with the investigation.

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The Salvation Army sent a team to help the people who lived in the buildings and the first responders with food, water and any other support.

Juli McDonald