On The Job – Massachusetts: Fire Consumes Historic Ballroom In Lunenburg

On the evening of March 2, 2002, a fire swept through the 64-year-old ballroom at the Whalom Amusement Park in Lunenburg, MA. For generations, the 35-acre park has created fond memories to the people of central Massachusetts. Celebrities such as Count Basie, Orson Welles, the Dorsey Brothers...


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On the evening of March 2, 2002, a fire swept through the 64-year-old ballroom at the Whalom Amusement Park in Lunenburg, MA. For generations, the 35-acre park has created fond memories to the people of central Massachusetts. Celebrities such as Count Basie, Orson Welles, the Dorsey Brothers, Elizabeth Taylor and Burt Lancaster played their music or performed live shows, jamming the ballroom to “standing room only.”

At 10:53 P.M., Lunenburg fire and police dispatch received the first of many 911 calls reporting a “very large fire inside Whalom Park.” Residents across the lake reported flames higher than the “Flying Comet,” the park’s 60-foot-tall wooden roller coaster. A full assignment of three Lunenburg engines, along with an engine and ladder from the City of Fitchburg, was dispatched to a fire “somewhere within the park.” The first person to arrive at the scene was a police officer, who reported that a building was well involved inside the park.

Arriving on the scene in just four minutes, Assistant Chief Ken Patton ordered the working fire. Chief Dennis Carrier had heard the dispatch and responded from his home. While enroute to the scene, Carrier – with all the extensive pre-planning in place – knew this job was yet another challenge for him as he awaited his official retirement date of July 1, 2002.

History Of The Park

The park, built in 1893 and one of the oldest on the East Coast, had endured everything from a tornado in the early 1930s and a hurricane in 1938 to massive fires involving major attractions. In 1939, fire struck a large wooden scenery building, followed in 1968 by a blaze in the two-story Rose Garden. In 1970, the facade of the burning bowling alley fell, trapping six firefighters. Two of the men were seriously injured. Five years later, a firefighter had to jump from a Snorkel bucket due to the radiating heat of the large and heavily involved Pirates Den. Although the family that has owned the park for generations tried to raise money to keep it open, the park closed about two years ago. Until the closing, some of the historical rides were still up and running. The roller coaster, built in 1940, is a classic wooden PTC (Philadelphia Toboggan Coaster) figure 8-style coaster. Top speed was 35 mph. The Carousel, dating back to the late 1800s, is a rare three-abreast machine consisting of animals and horses carved in the 1880s.

Building Description

The ballroom, built in 1938 of wooden construction, measured 153 feet by 82 feet with a hung truss roof. A five-foot-high crawl space was under the east side of the building. A storage area at the northeast corner contained restaurant supplies such as pizza ovens and paper goods. In the center was the wide-open ballroom. On the southeast side a small, 80-by-40-foot attached building. There was no sprinkler system.

The first engine to arrive was Lunenburg Engine 4. The crew picked up the hydrant at the rotary on the waterfront side of the park, then laid 750 feet of dual four-inch feeder lines to gate number 3, which is between the roller coaster and the ballroom. As the firefighters pulled into the gate they quickly went to deck gun operation with their tank water and stretched a 2½-inch pre-connect to protect the wooden support beams of the wooden roller coaster, which was 30 feet from the burning structure. Lunenburg Engine 2 picked up the second four-inch feeder line and went into gate 3, also with a deck gun and a 2½-inch line on the ballroom’s A/D side. Patton, who took command as water supply officer, had Lunenburg Engine 3 pump the two four-inch lines at the rotary.

Carrier arrived on the scene and took command of the fire at gate 2 and ordered a full assignment from the City of Leominster, bringing three additional engines and another ladder to the fire. Heavy fire was now visible at the ventilator shafts and in middle of the ballroom roof. The fire was picking up momentum and moving toward the roller coaster, and large brands were blowing over the rest of the park. With a steady rain falling and the wind out of the southeast, the firefighters were up against the potential of the rest of the park going up in flames. Many trees in the park were on fire from the heavy embers. All of the buildings in the park were old wooden structures in poor condition.

Mutual Aid

Carrier assigned two officers to assist with the placement of incoming mutual aid companies inside the park. Lieutenant James Ricci had Fitchburg Ladder 3 enter from the back and set up its ladder pipe onto the roof of the ballroom. Fitchburg Engine 1 laid a feeder line from a hydrant in the middle of the park to Ladder 3’s pipe.

Firefighters quickly went to work on the back of ballroom, but the intensity and the spread of the fire forced them to reposition the ladder truck. Additional lines were stretched into the back where the fire picked up speed.

When Leominster’s ladder arrived on the scene, Carrier had the company go into gate 2 and place the ladder pipe onto the ballroom roof. Townsend’s first engine was set up at the north side of the lake to draft and feed Leominster’s ladder pipe. A second engine from Townsend arrived and also set up drafting operations.

Lieutenant Peter Hyatt, assisting with the placement of apparatus, had Leominster’s Engine 2 and Engine 4 proceed into gate 1 and set up into heavy appliances. Leominster Engine 3 picked up the hydrant on the Leominster side of the park and feed Engine 2. Leominster Engine 3 had attempted the hydrant, but found it to be clogged. The crew had to disconnect and find another hydrant as fire had just about consumed the entire ballroom. Two additional pumpers from Shirley were positioned on the south end of the lake to draft.

Within 20 minutes of the first alarm, 12 engines and three ladder companies were on the scene, equivalent to three alarms. The fire had consumed the ballroom, but because of the rapid deployment of deck guns and handlines, firefighters confined the fire to the ballroom. In less than 45 minutes, the building collapsed into a pile of rubble.

Carrier indicated that he had “gone over this fire at least 25 times in my mind” when he was doing his pre-planning of the park. He said the fire “met every objective of my thoughts” in that no firefighters were injured, the fire was confined to the original fire building and no other exposures were lost.

With the arrival of primary mutual aid pieces, Carrier said, “mutual aid went as well as expected.” The departments had the ability to communicate directly, which made it easy to hear all fireground radio traffic.

The involvement of mutual aid departments in the pre-plan also proved to be of great significance. “I had all the right people around me that had pre-planned this fire over and over,” Carrier said.

With the park being a locked facility, a knox box outside of gate 1 contained the keys to all the gates. Access into the park could be by key or by cutting away the locks. The water supply used in the fire involved three different water systems – the water mains of Lunenburg and Leominster and the lake on the east side of the park.

Conclusion

The park presented a challenge to the departments based on previous fires that had occurred there over the years. With the potential of the entire park going up in flames with the “right conditions,” firefighters met the challenge by pre-planning and by stopping a major fire from consuming the entire park.

The fire was labeled suspicious. Later that month, four teenagers were arrested in connection with the incident. Fire and police officials believe the fire started when brooms were ignited by flammable aerosol cans under the crawl space in the middle of the ballroom. Points of origin were found elsewhere in the park, but those fires never amounted to anything. No injuries were reported.

LUNENBURG FIRE DEPARTMENT
Chief Dennis Carrie
Personnel: Four full-time firefighters, 40 call firefighters
Apparatus: Three engines, one mini-pumper, two ambulances
Population: 9,365
Area: 29 square miles


Scott LaPrade is a 13-year career firefighter with the Leominster, MA, Fire Department. He serves as the vice president of the Boston Sparks Association and has been photographing the fire service for 20 years.

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