In the chaotic first minutes, a veteran battalion chief made a decision that officials say probably saved that part of the city

09:16 AM EST on Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Journal Staff Writer

PAWTUCKET -- Battalion Chief Richard Meerbott was the first ranking fire official to arrive at the Greenhalgh Mill complex Friday, and the first to realize that there was no way to stop the blaze from destroying the mill.

Meerbott, a 35-year-veteran who had battled mill fires elsewhere in the city, could see almost immediately that this one was different.

The sprawling mill was so close to the houses along Kenyon Avenue that, if the fire spread, it could take out the whole neighborhood, he said. Gale-force winds were whipping the flames up into an inferno, creating what Meerbott described as an "ocean of fire."

In the first hectic minutes after Pawtucket firefighters arrived at the mill complex east of George R. Bennett Industrial Highway, Meerbott, 60, made a decision that city and fire officials said probably saved that part of the city.

"There was so much fire, we obviously couldn't put it out," Meerbott said yesterday in an interview. "All I knew is we were not going to let it jump out of Kenyon Avenue . . . If we lost Kenyon Avenue, we would have lost 50 to 100 homes."

So, rather than try to extinguish the blaze from the big, open area south of the mill complex, Meerbott redirected men and equipment to the Kenyon Avenue side, where they spent hours in oven-hot temperatures stopping the fire from spreading.

"We were either going to put the fire out or they were going to carry us out," Meerbott said.

The effort paid off. Of the 16 houses that burned Friday, only 8 were destroyed. Six of the houses that were destroyed abutted the mill complex: At 60 Kenyon Ave., 62-64 Kenyon Ave., 68 Kenyon Ave., 74 Kenyon Ave., 78 Kenyon Ave. and 272 Woodbine St. The other two houses that were destroyed were several blocks away at 10-12 Darlingdale Ave. and 32-34 Willard Ave.

Meerbott said the 15 firefighters he assigned to Kenyon Avenue were so focused on what they were doing that they had no idea that wind-borne embers had set the houses on Darlingdale and Willard Avenues ablaze.

"There was so much smoke and fire where we were, we couldn't see anybody," he said, "and nobody could see us."

Two of the firefighters who fought the fire on Kenyon Avenue were among the 17 firefighters who were injured.

Felix Ramos, who directed water onto the flames from the bed of a pickup truck in the backyard of 82 Kenyon Ave., was hit in the eye by a burning ember. Ramos was released after receiving treatment at Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island.

Lt. David L. Byerlee, a 34-year veteran of the Fire Department, suffered an apparent heart attack. He was taken first to Memorial, then to Rhode Island Hospital, after complaining of chest pains around 10:30 p.m., more than three hours after the fire was declared contained.

Byerlee remained at Rhode Island Hospital yesterday. Fire officials described his condition as good.

Many of the houses destroyed were multifamily dwellings. Al Araujo, director of the city's Department of Emergency Management, said the fire, which burned out of control from 2:45 to 7:05 p.m., left 37 families homeless. Red Cross spokeswoman Robin Erickson said that as of yesterday, the agency was still providing 10 families with room and board.

In some cases, the devastation caused by the fire was so thorough that it took an official from the assessor's office, armed with tax maps, to assess the damage, acting Fire Chief Richard J. Renzi said.

Meerbott said every firefighter on duty in Pawtucket was assigned to fight the fire. As reinforcements arrived from fire departments elsewhere in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, they were initially deployed haphazardly to fight fires that broke out all over the neighborhood.

The fire was so out of control, Renzi said, the best he could do was order arriving fire companies to "pick a spot where there isn't a fire truck."

"If you see a fire, you own it," Renzi said.

Later, as the fire was contained, and firefighter Robert Howe took command at fire alarm headquarters, the approach became more coordinated, with staging areas set up on Roosevelt Avenue and Armistice Boulevard from which out-of-town fire companies were deployed.

Three days after the fire, the cause remained undetermined. Lt. Timothy McLaughlin, the city fire marshal, said dogs had been brought in to check for bodies in the mill rubble, and to sniff out chemicals that might have been used to start the fire.

McLaughlin said no bodies were found. He declined to comment on the presence of chemicals. Debris from the smoldering mill site has been sent to the University of Rhode Island laboratory for tests, he said.

Before the fire, a demolition company, Coventry Wrecking, was preparing to tear down the Greenhalgh Mill complex to make way for a Super Stop & Shop.

But David Monti, a spokesman for Churchill & Banks, the developer, said no actual demolition work had been done. Instead, Coventry Wrecking was busy removing the southern yellow pine it was entitled to salvage under the demolition contract.

"They were basically pulling the pine," Monti said. "To our knowledge, there were no torches or anything like that being used."

Churchill & Banks plans to proceed with the Stop & Shop, Monti said, beginning demolition after the state fire marshal's office and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives wrap up their investigations.

Monti said construction is still expected to begin next month and the new supermarket is expected to open late next year.

Classes were back in session at the Curvin-McCabe School, two blocks from the Greenhalgh Mill site, despite a smell of smoke that caused school officials to close off the cafeteria, two classrooms and an art and music room.

A cleanup crew supervised by Joseph Scallin, the School Department's director of physical plant, was using "negative air machines" -- essentially giant vacuum cleaners -- to clear the affected rooms.

Fire extinguishers were in short supply. Curvin-McCabe Principal Rose Mary Choiniere said the extinguishers were given out Friday to people desperate to keep the fire from spreading to their homes.

The air in the school building had been tested Sunday and found safe to breathe, Schools Supt. Hans W. Dellith said. Jennifer Higgins, a teacher who checked into the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation over the weekend, was at Curvin-McCabe until 11 p.m. Friday, Dellith said, helping to secure the school. She was later released.