Lawrence Is Burning!

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.

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.

Ladder 5 (Snorkel) came down Parker Street and turned right onto Market. The apparatus went halfway up the block and turned left into the Haffner car wash/gas station parking lot and made its way around to Parker Street again and pulled up to the corner of Springfield Street at a 45-degree angle. This would let them place their streams onto the buildings burning on Parker and the exposures on Springfield. That was a smart tactical decision. The crew from Rescue 1 worked with Ladder 5 for a while. Two members from Ladder 5 were up in the bucket with their third man on the controls at the base of the Snorkel, so Rescue 1's crew set about assisting them with a water supply. Engine 6 came down South Union and took a hydrant at Salem and Parker, dropping a four-inch feeder line to Ladder 5. The lay was only 300 feet, so they did not set their pump at the hydrant. The men on Rescue 1 were ordered by the deputy to the alley. Lowell's ladder was coming into the alley and the men were to assist them with getting a water supply.

Incidentally, about an hour into the fire, the Snorkel was moved a short distance farther down Springfield Street as the danger of collapse became much more evident. Every building on Springfield Street has electric wires that run from the north side of the street to telephone poles directly opposite, an obvious hazard to those who work with ladder equipment and devices that deliver water. A service truck from National Grid promptly arrived at the blaze and proceeded to cut the wires running at the first five buildings. The Snorkel got back into the fray.

When the crew finished tying the big line into the Snorkel, Engine 6 attempted to hook up to the hydrant at Springfield and Parker, but the threaded port broke right off and the hydrant was useless. At a scant 12 degrees and a brutal wind, there were certainly issues with the cold. The crew on Engine 6 then assisted with running four or five handlines into the alley to darken down the fires in a couple of garages, and, to play water onto the rear of the exposures on Springfield. They got their water from the manifold at the Haverhill engine. The men at the rear of Springfield said later that they took quite a beating in the heavy smoke covering the alley and certainly raising hell with the exposures.

As the engine companies established water supplies and both Ladder 4 and the Snorkel positioned their trucks at critical locations, the deputy was trying to determine how many buildings he had involved and what exposures he had to contend with. This necessitated a walk to the large vacant lot beyond 372-374 Market St. where he went through a gated mesh fence and into a narrow alley that ran behind the rows of buildings on both Springfield and Market streets the entire distance between Parker and Foster. At 2:49 A.M., Marsh ordered the fourth alarm, sending him engine companies from Middleton, Dracut and Haverhill and an engine and an aerial tower from Salem. The engines were all ordered to the fire, and a few minutes later, the tower ladder from Salem was ordered directly to the fire.

Lawrence Fire Chief Peter Takvorian had been notified of the fire and was driving down Route 495 along the Ward Hill section of Haverhill. He could clearly see a large column of smoke in the night sky. Once on the fireground, he assumed command of the fire and established a command post in proximity to the buildings on Parker Street. The Lawrence Police Department dispatched a large mobile command vehicle that allowed city officials to examine water supply grids, maps of the immediate area and so on to augment the assignments of both equipment and personnel and strategies should further issues arise. It also served as a place to get warm.

Engine 7 went to Andover and Parker, where it dropped 1,000 feet of four-inch hose toward Ladder 5 at the corner of Springfield. Having laid all of its supply hose, an Andover engine completed the lay that connected to a manifold positioned at the Snorkel (Ladder 5). Engine 7 then set its pump midway along the feeder and the Snorkel was all set where water was concerned.

Engine 8 responded on the second alarm and placed a hose manifold at Ladder 4, then laid four-inch hose down Market Street to a hydrant near Jackson Lumber. That hydrant was apparently frozen. North Andover Engine 1 dropped a four-inch feeder down to South Union Street and tied in its pump. Shortly after it started to feed the big line, whatever the problem was with the first hydrant cleared itself and Engine 8 now had two feeders. That worked out perfectly; later during the fire, the gauges on the pump panel of Engine 8 froze up and it necessitated taking the piece out of service. North Andover's engine connected Engine 8's line to their feeder and continued the water supply. Members from Engine 8, Engine 7, and North Andover Engine 1 went to the alley and operated several handlines onto the rear of the buildings.

Engine 1 from Salem came down South Union and made a right on Market, stopping near the far end of a large parking lot on the left side of the street. The crew pulled a 2½-inch line off and, using only the water in the tank initially, started putting water onto a three-story wood-frame building that was one of three extremely close to one another. The crew soon jockeyed a feeder line from the manifold at Ladder 4.

Shortly after the engine arrived, the aerial tower rolled in and took a position in that parking lot, affording firefighters a perfect spot to attack the fire, as this put them next to the long alley in the center of the fray. Ladder 4 was at the front of the buildings on Market Street and the aerial tower was in the back. When the tower arrived, the Salem engine shut down and moved back, taking its feeder line and tying it into the tower. To make matters worse for the firefighters in the aerial tower, they were caught in the heavy, acrid smoke from 11 buildings that would be summarily destroyed before daylight. In this job, you do what you have to do. Good jakes.

Water supply was urgent, with numerous engines relay pumping into large-diameter hose. Middleton, Reading, Dracut and Haverhill linked up a monster relay from a hydrant 2,700 feet away. As indicated by the alarm assignments, 13 cities and towns provided assistance. Prompt and efficient mutual aid was critical in holding this inferno to the neighborhood of origin.

One thing was surely evident on this night: you can't put out a fire until you get the call.

WALTER F. PUTNAM is a retired captain from the Salem, NH, Fire Department. He has written several "On The Job" articles for Firehouse®.