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A general-alarm fire tore through a five-story, U-shaped, 217,000-square-foot mill at 85 Fairmount St. in Woonsocket, RI, on June 7, 2011. At the height of the fire, with the mill complex fully involved and major structural collapses occurring, some 250 firefighters and command staff were involved in the attack, using multiple ladder pipes, deck guns, portable monitors and handlines. A major concern was the presence of hazardous materials, as the building had been used to manufacture and store many chemicals and other dangerous products.The mill was built in 1889 by the Woonsocket Rubber Co. and later was sold to the United States Rubber Co. The complex was once the largest rubber-goods factory in the world, sitting on eight acres along the Blackstone River in the city’s Fairmount Section. The mill closed in 1932, but was reopened in September 1941 to meet World War II demands. The company manufactured barrage balloons, 10-person rubber attack boats, and wading and lifesaving suits. The mill remained in operation until the 1960s and then was reopened by Tech Industries, a manufacturer of plastic jars and caps for the cosmetics industry until 2009. The building was purchased by American Wood Pellet in December 2010 and was undergoing renovations prior to the new owner’s occupancy. The mill structure had an operational fire alarm system, but the sprinkler system was disabled at the time of the fire.
Woonsocket Fire Control received a tilt intrusion, or trouble box, for the building at 7:30 P.M. This type of alarm usually is a one-engine response per the fire department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs). Deputy Chief Tom Williams (Chief 1), the on-duty commander, asked for a full first-alarm assignment to be sent as a precaution because of the vast size of the building. Engine 1 arrived first due, radioing “nothing showing” and that they had to open a locked gate at side A. Engine 2 sat on a hydrant as they arrived on scene. Engine 3, Tower Ladder 2 and Williams reported to the east stair tower to review the annunciator panel, which was not showing any device in alarm.
Williams drove 360 degrees around the complex as Engine 1 climbed the stairs in full gear carrying high-rise packs and tools to investigate. Engine 3 and Tower Ladder 2 were assigned to investigate the west stair tower. Williams also did not notice any smoke showing as he investigated the other three sides of the complex. As the chief positioned his car in the main lot on side A, he noticed white smoke coming from the third-floor windows on the west side. Captain David Souza of Tower Ladder 2 also noticed the same conditions where he was investigating. Engine 1 stopped on the second floor, walked eight feet into the warehouse and were greeted with a sea of flames along the entire ceiling. They did a quick about-face and bolted to the safety of the east tower. Within seconds, the white smoke turned into heavy, churning, brown smoke that was under pressure from the second and third floors.
Williams radioed to Fire Control that he had a “Code Red,” the region’s term for a working fire. He requested Squad 4, the last piece of the city’s apparatus not assigned on the first alarm, to the scene and for a safety officer to be called in. Heavy fire was now pushing out of four windows on the third floor. Command had all companies sound their air horns and for Fire Control to transmit the evacuation signal on the radio channel. A personnel accountability report (PAR) was conducted and confirmed that all initial-response personnel were safely out of the building and accounted for.
Williams requested a third alarm to be sent to the scene and for Northern Control to back-fill the empty firehouses in the city. Northern Control (the Smithfield Fire Department) is one of the state’s four control points for Intercity Mutual Aid and handled all of the relocation and alarm-level requests for the city’s dispatch center.