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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As the deputy stopped his rig on the far corner of Parker and Market, he noticed the paint blistering on a car parked in front of him and knew at once he had to back the vehicle up and go west on Market Street to park out of harm's way. Only one additional minute went by before the deputy ordered the third alarm at 2:39 A.M. Three engines from North Andover, Andover and Methuen and a ladder from Lowell were summoned for mutual aid. Normally, those engines and the ladder would provide station coverage, but given the gravity of the situation, Marsh ordered all four pieces right to the fire. By the time he got situated, grabbed the gear he needed and walked back to Parker Street, he could see that five buildings were now involved and the wind was spreading the flames rapidly. Marsh had major trouble, in spades.

Some larger fires are often jokingly referred to as "surround and drown." Fires like this need a new title. Marsh went over to Ladder 4 on Market Street to try and see how many buildings were going. Then he walked back to 46-58 Parker and spoke with Pellerin regarding water supply in that side of the fire. He went down Springfield Street and at the rear of number 22 he found a gate that led into the alley. At this point, he knew he had eight buildings on fire, including probably four garages and several automobiles, and this was early on. He stayed in the alley for another half-hour or so until the Lowell ladder and an aerial tower from Salem, NH, were operating. At this point, he had two more buildings rolling.

Meanwhile, Engine 9's crew, along with a Lawrence police officer, each took a stairwell into the building at 46-58 Parker St., hoping they had time to make their primary search before the fire drove them out. The men could see six or eight people looking down from several windows and yelled at them to hurry and leave the building. The alarms in the hallways were sounding as the men headed in. This part of the building contained numerous small apartments for assisted-living adults who, in their moment of fear, needed that urging to exit at once. This was clearly one of those incidents when you have no time to bring a line. You need to get in, do a rapid search as best you can and get out. The police officer took the first floor while Firefighter Gary Clement went to the second and the lieutenant made his way up to the third.

Up on the top floor things were getting bad, as heavy smoke and heat filled the corridor. Pellerin could see the fire had extended into the end (side B) of the building and was moving fast. He donned his mask on the way up and was forced to kick in the hallway door. Forcible entry can be very time consuming and they were lucky the doors weren't all locked. He started a search of each unit, further noting the sprinklers in the hallway were operating. It was a given that a few sprinkler heads were not going to tame this beast.

Simultaneously, Clement made his way through the acrid smoke and checked his floor as well. He could hear his lieutenant kicking in the door at the top of the stairs. Completing his search, Clement then dashed up to the third floor to assist his lieutenant. Time was running out as the visibility was disappearing entirely and the heat level was rising. The men finished their search and knew beyond any doubt that it was time to bail and they headed back down the stairs. The police officer was safely out as well. The chauffeur had already pulled a 1¾-inch handline off the rig, but Pellerin wanted to take a 2½-inch line so they could use the far greater volume of water to hit the exposures. They encountered a fluctuating water pressure and could not use the 2½-inch line and reverted to the smaller line.

Engine 5 was the second-due engine on the box and it stopped momentarily at Parker and Market. Firefighter Mike Delaney pulled a 100-foot length of four-inch hose off the engine and dragged it over to Engine 9. The engine laid another 400 feet of feeder line up to a hydrant on Market Street, in the opposite direction from the fire, and set the pump. Captain Dan Kennedy stayed with the pump operator to monitor a fluctuating residual pressure in the event they had to find an additional water source. The deputy also instructed Kennedy that, when the Haverhill engine arrived, to send it to Springfield Street to address the exposure problem.

Ladder 4, a straight stick additionally equipped with a 1,250-gpm pump, came down Market Street and the members took a hard look at the scene before them. The lieutenant said later that he could see one building fully involved and starting to come down, the exposure to the right (side D) burning on one end, two other buildings in the rear, and yet another on Market Street, all starting to go. He wisely selected a position where he felt they could position the ladder and try to keep the fire from sweeping up Market. The lieutenant pulled four-inch feeder line off the rig and dragged it to a hydrant at Market and Parker. It was all about water.