Lawrence Is Burning!

Walter F. Putnam reports on the multiple-alarm response to a downtown firestorm in the Massachusetts city.


Extreme cold; middle of the night; moderate northwest wind; life safety; delayed alarm. Conditions that can, and all too often do, present serious problems for those who proudly wear the Maltese Cross. It is a scenario that many a firefighter has encountered with the anxiety that things are about to...


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Extreme cold; middle of the night; moderate northwest wind; life safety; delayed alarm. Conditions that can, and all too often do, present serious problems for those who proudly wear the Maltese Cross. It is a scenario that many a firefighter has encountered with the anxiety that things are about to go downhill fast, unless you get lucky.

Early Monday morning, Jan. 21, 2008, the Lawrence, MA, firehouses were quiet and the members were undoubtedly appreciating the fact that on this bitterly cold night they were comfortably indoors, not out working in the elements. That was all about to change in a big way. About 2:30 A.M., a Patriot Ambulance Co. medical unit was heading west on Market Street to a 911 call. As the unit approached the intersection with Parker Street, the emergency medical technicians on board were surprised at the sight of a large three-story wood-frame building with fire billowing out of several windows and well above the roof. A radio call to their dispatcher put a lot of things into motion as the information was then transferred to Lawrence Fire Alarm. At the same time, the 911 system was being flooded with calls reporting the fire.

Box 6111 was transmitted at 2:35 A.M., dispatching Engines 9, 5 and 6 and Ladder 4, under the command of Deputy Chief John Marsh. First-due Engine 9 is on Bailey Street, about three blocks from the fire scene. As soon as the bay doors went up and the rig rolled onto the apron, the sky was lit up in a bright-orange glow, which leaves little to a firefighter's imagination. Police units also headed for the fire, knowing that initial radio reports did not bode well. Anyone working in emergency services in the city of Lawrence knew this area was very congested.

Engine 9 rolled to a stop in front of a large three-story wood-frame vacant building that was heavily involved. This building had once housed a nightclub on the first floor, with the upper levels containing apartments. The property was being renovated and the interior was essentially wide open. To make matters worse, the structure was very close to an occupied building of similar size and construction, with a grocery store on the first floor and several occupied apartments above.

Lieutenant Wayne Pellerin stated, "On arrival, I had fire blowing out of every single window, door, everywhere, and there wasn't a single person in the street." Not good. As the engine came to a stop along the centerline of Parker Street, the crew could immediately feel the radiant heat penetrating into the cab. There was no way the pumper could stay at the front of this building. The lieutenant reported a working fire and told responding companies he would need a feeder line. The engine started backing up in a hurry. The men on Engine 9 had plenty to do, and everybody was about to be invited.

The fire had taken full control of the original building at 34-44 Parker St. with fire already extending southward (side D) into the structure at 46-58 Parker St., at the corner of Springfield. The exposure situation was critical, as most of the buildings in this block are separated by no more than six to eight feet at most and the radiant heat was intense. In fact, the streetlight covers on the far side of Parker Street were starting to melt. Making matters worse, the brisk wind out of the northwest was rapidly fanning the flames toward the buildings lying directly in its path. Things were headed south in a hurry, and we are not talking about wind direction.

Marsh drove his vehicle over the central bridge and south on Parker Street. Ladder 4 was just crossing Parker from Market as the deputy went under the railroad overpass. Approaching the fireground, he slowed down to look at what he had to contend with. The deputy radioed Fire Alarm that he had three buildings involved and one of them had just collapsed; he ordered a second alarm three minutes into the call. This started Ladder 5 (Snorkel) and the rescue to the fire.

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