On The Job: Rhode Island - Rhode Island & Massachusetts Units Converge On Pawtucket Mill Fire

A fire in Pawtucket, RI, that started in a nearly century-old mill that was undergoing demolition threatened to become a conflagration that could destroy a large area of the city. Before the fire was controlled, three mill buildings and 13 residential structures were destroyed, and 17 other structures were damaged. Over 100 people were left homeless. Twenty-one mutual aid departments from Rhode Island and Massachusetts took part in firefighting operations and six other Massachusetts departments were on standby across the state line in Seekonk.

Photo By Michael Gleason
A house located near the mill building on Kenyon Avenue is fully engulfed. Three mill buildings and 13 homes were destroyed, and 17 other structures were damaged.


Chief: Timothy McLaughlin
PersonneL: 146 career firefighters
Apparatus: two pumpers, two aerials, two ALS units, one reserve ladder, two marine units, one special rescue vehicle, one mass-casualty vehicle, one hazmat trailer, two reserve engines, two reserve rescues
Population: 72,206
Area: 82 square miles

The three-story, 300,000-square-foot Greenhalgh Mill was built in 1906 of typical mill-type construction: brick, Class 3 heavy timbers, yellow pine flooring, and an asphalt and gravel roof. The wooden floors were saturated with oil that had leaked from cotton looms during the mill’s 93 years of operation. All utilities to the mill had been cut off on Oct. 22, and the sprinkler and fire alarm systems were out of service. It was a clear day with gale force winds reaching 50 mph from the northwest. Temperatures were in the 30s, falling below freezing as night fell.

At 2:46 P.M. on Nov. 14, 2003, the Pawtucket Fire Department was dispatched to a reported fire at the Greenhalgh Mill at 314 Woodbine St. Responding on the first alarm were Engines 3, 4 and 6 and Ladder 2, a 110-foot aerial, with 12 firefighters under the command of Third Battalion Chief Richard Meerbott. The Engine 6 crew was operating Reserve Engine 7 at the time, as the Engine 6 apparatus was in the shop for repairs.

The Cottage Street Fire Station, home to Engine 4 and Ladder 2, was located directly across the street from the mill. As Engine 4 firefighters were donning their turnout gear, Lieutenant John Leite notified the Fire Alarm Bureau that he had heavy fire showing and requested a second alarm. Engine 4 reported on scene at 2:47. The fire grew rapidly from the northwest corner of the mill to being fully involved in a matter of minutes. Engine 4 and Ladder 2 were positioned off of Woodbine Street (side 2) for defensive operations. Engine 3 laid dual three-inch supply lines from a hydrant on Woodbine Street (side 1) to the northwest side of the mill and supplied Engine 4. Firefighters from Engine 3 and Engine 4 placed numerous handlines into operation, and also laid supply lines to Ladder 2 for aerial master stream operations. Lieutenant David Byerlee had Firefighter Christopher Kinch position Engine 6 on the corner of Kenyon Avenue and Baxter Street after they laid two three-inch supply lines to themselves from a hydrant on Baxter Street. Multiple lines were stretched from this engine to protect exposures on the south side of Kenyon Avenue.

Responding on the second alarm at 2:52 were Engine 2, Ladder 1, a 110-foot aerial, and Rescue 2, an EMS unit with eight firefighters. Meerbott requested a third alarm at 2:59. Engines 1 and 5 and Rescue 1, an EMS unit, responded with an additional eight firefighters.

Off-duty Lieutenant Steve Parent responded to Station 4 and brought Reserve Ladder 3, an 85-foot aerial, to the scene. That unit was positioned on Woodbine Street (side 1) and set up for water tower operations. Fire Department Mechanic Joseph Coccia was just completing repairs on Engine 6 when he heard Meerbott call for more engines. Coccia drove Engine 6 to the scene. This engine, supplied by dual three-inch supply lines, was positioned on Woodbine Street and supplied Ladder 3 along with several handlines and its deluge gun.

After conducting his size-up, Meerbott ordered all Pawtucket companies responding on the second and third alarms to Kenyon Avenue (side 4) of the mill to protect the residential structures on this street. Engine 2 laid dual three-inch supply lines from a hydrant and was positioned on Kenyon Avenue. Lieutenant Joseph Murray had Firefighter Will Maher position Ladder 1 in a driveway between two homes on Kenyon Avenue and set up to protect an occupied two-story mill and several homes. Firefighters from Engine 2 and Ladder 1 also placed numerous handlines into operation.

Firefighter Al McVay and Lieutenant Robert Thurber advanced a 150-foot 2½-inch pre-connect into a yard directly behind the mill. Before Thurber could order Firefighter David Reed to charge the line, fire was coming out of every window on the northeast side of the mill. The heat was tremendous and the two firefighters had to retreat 25 feet to the end of the exposure and take cover. This exposure was a three-story wood-frame house with a three-stall garage that contained three antique cars and a boat. Lieutenant Timothy McLaughlin and Firefighter William Cullinan, both from the Fire Marshal’s Office, arrived and stretched a 150-foot 1¾-inch pre-connect from Engine 2 to protect the garage.

Initially, firefighters applied water to the mill with these handlines and the aerial master stream. It quickly became apparent that these efforts were futile and operations were turned to protecting several homes and a commercial building on the downwind side of the mill. Engine 1 laid dual three-inch supply lines from a hydrant and was positioned on Kenyon Avenue. This crew operated numerous handlines protecting residential structures. Engine 5 laid dual three-inch supply lines from a hydrant to a position on Kenyon Avenue. This engine supplied numerous handlines protecting homes on Kenyon Avenue and also supplied Ladder 1.

Photo By Butch Adams/The Times
Crews and hoselines are positioned to protect exposures.

During these operations, firefighters also had to evacuate several homes and the occupied commercial building on Kenyon Avenue. Firefighters from Engine 2 noticed that the house at 99 Kenyon (at the corner of Kenyon and Cottage) was on fire and advised Thurber. This was a large, three-story, wooden multi-family dwelling. Reed, the chauffeur of Engine 2, was directed to stretch a 1¾-inch line to the structure. Thurber advised Meerbott of the situation and requested additional manpower. Firefighters advanced the attack line into the basement and extinguished the fire.

Once the basement fire was extinguished, firefighters checked for extension to the upper floors. A mutual aid engine company from Attleboro, MA, assisted with overhaul operations on the first floor and quickly extinguished the fire. Stopping the fire spread in this three-decker was crucial to the tactics that were deployed due to the strong winds. Had this building been lost, it is felt that the residential structures on Baxter Street and the school building also would have been lost.

Firefighter Michael Miniati, assigned to dispatch, a rookie with a little over a year on the job, and Michael Fox were in dispatch and became inundated with 911 telephone calls as well as requests from fire companies on scene. During the first 25 minutes until Lieutenant Robert Howe arrived to assist them, both remained calm and did an extraordinary job answering calls while controlling communications over Pawtucket’s single radio frequency and one mutual aid channel. There were also 19 other non-related EMS/fire calls that they had to dispatch during the course of the mill fire.

Mutual aid fill-ins at Pawtucket fire stations began almost immediately after the incident started. At 3:04, the first mutual aid companies were dispatched to the scene. North Providence Engine 4 and Ladder 1, which had filled in at Pawtucket Station 5, were dispatched to the mill.

At 3:15, Leite reported that the northwest portion of the mill was starting to collapse. Once the collapse occurred, crews on this side were able to move closer with their lines to fight the fire in the mill.

First Battalion Chief Ronald Doire, who was acting assistant fire chief at the time of the fire and was at Fire Headquarters, left for the scene to investigate after hearing several minutes of these transmissions on the monitor. Doire arrived on scene at 3:18 and met with Meerbott at the intersection of Cottage Street and Kenyon Avenue. Doire assumed command of the incident at 3:22 and established a command post at the corner of Cottage and Kenyon. For the first 90 minutes, Doire directed operations from the street-corner command post on a portable radio. Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA) Manager John Aucott arrived on scene with a support vehicle (a box truck with radio equipment, dry erase boards, generators, etc.) at approximately 4:20, and incident command was moved to this vehicle.

At about 5:30, the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal’s Office Incident Support Unit (ISU) arrived and command was moved to this vehicle. The 40-foot vehicle provided a fully equipped conference room complete with video, telephone and radio communications along with a complete communications center with low, high, ultra-high and 800 radio capabilities. Chief Kevin Partridge and six staff members responded with this unit and aided in organizing the incident.

Acting Chief of Department Richard Renzi requested a general alarm at 3:26. This initiated the recall of all off-duty Pawtucket personnel. Additional fires were developing blocks away from the scene of the mill fire due to the large embers being blown by 50-mph winds. The first structure to ignite was a three-story, three-unit, wood-frame dwelling 1½ blocks away on Darlingdale Avenue. Mutual aid companies from Johnston and North Providence, RI, and Attleboro, MA, operated at this fire. In addition to fighting the fire and protecting exposures, these companies extinguished several other smaller fires in the area. The three-story structure was destroyed. One block away on Rock Avenue, the roof on a garage ignited. This fire was also extinguished by mutual aid companies. Over five blocks away from the mill, another major structure fire developed from flying embers. This 2½-story wood-frame dwelling was heavily involved upon arrival of mutual aid companies from Johnston, Lincoln, North Providence and West Warwick, RI, and Seekonk, MA. Crews made an aggressive interior attack on this fire until the roof collapsed and they were ordered to evacuate. Defensive operations were initiated, but the structure was destroyed.

Photo By Ed Burke
Aerial units were carefully positioned to avoid contact with overhead power lines. More than 30 fire investigators were involved in seeking the cause of the fire, which caused $3 million in damage.

Spontaneous fires were erupting over the entire 15-block area downwind from the mill. Large burning embers carried by the wind were igniting trees, shrubs, grass and any combustible material they came in contact with. Homeowners trying to protect their properties extinguished some of the fires with garden hoses as other fires were being extinguished by mutual aid companies sent to patrol the area.

Second Battalion Chief Michael Carter, whose shift was due on at 6 P.M., responded to the scene and relieved Captain Christopher Cute as staging officer and later relieved Meerbott as operations chief. Fourth Battalion Chief Vincent Scully also responded and took over calling in all off-duty members and reestablished an accountability of Pawtucket firefighters operating at the scene. Doire transferred command to Scully at 11:22 P.M.

The fire was declared contained at 7:05 P.M. Over 300 firefighters operated 42 engines, 19 aerials and eight rescues battling the conflagration. Some 425,000 gallons of water was used during the incident. At the height of the fire, 15 hydrants were in use, flowing over 10,000 gallons per minute. Firefighters laid 4,500 feet of four-inch supply line, 7,500 feet of three-inch line, and used 2,500 feet of 2½-inch attack line and 6,000 feet of 1¾- attack line. The last mutual aid department left the scene at 2:33 A.M. on Nov. 15. For the next six days, a minimum of one engine and one ladder operated at the scene extinguishing hot spots and assisting the fire investigation crews.

Nineteen Pawtucket firefighters and six mutual aid firefighters were injured fighting the fire. Injuries included one heart attack, three cases of smoke inhalation, three eye injuries, five hypertension cases and 13 miscellaneous injuries. Six civilians were treated at local hospitals for smoke inhalation. Approximately 450 feet of hose and two nozzles were damaged and numerous hand tools were lost or damaged fighting the fire. Damage was estimated at $3 million. The Pawtucket Fire Department’s office manager, Barbara Pacheco, reported to her office on Sunday, Nov. 16, to complete payroll records for the $47,582 in overtime expenses created by the fire since its start Friday afternoon.

Involved in the fire investigation were more than 30 investigators from the Pawtucket Fire Department Fire Marshal’s Division, Pawtucket Police Arson Investigation Unit, Rhode Island State Fire Marshal’s Office, Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office, state Department of Environmental Management, and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Reports from firefighters and police officers who were first on the scene indicate that the fire was initially located in the one-story building that connected the Weave Shed and the Spinning Mill. It is believed that the fire started in the area of the four-story bridge between the Weave Shed and the Spinning Mill. Open fire doors in the Spinning Mill allowed rapid fire spread on every floor in the Spinning Mill.

At the time of the fire, former Fire Chief James Condon had retired and the search for a new chief had not been completed. On Jan. 17, 2004, Lieutenant Timothy McLaughlin was appointed chief of the department. McLaughlin was the lead investigator on this fire.

Mutual aid involved in firefighting operations from Rhode Island included: two engines from Central Falls; one engine, ladder and rescue from Cranston; three engines, one ladder and one rescue from Cumberland; four engines, one ladder and one rescue from East Providence; two engines and one ladder from Johnston; two engines and two ladders from Lincoln; one engine from Manville; two engines, one ladder and one rescue from North Providence; one ladder from North Smithfield; six engines and four ladders from Providence; one engine and one ladder from Situate, two engines from Smithfield; one engine from Tiverton; two engines and one ladder from Warren; two engines, one ladder and one rescue from Warwick; and two engines and one rescue from West Warwick. Massachusetts mutual aid involved in firefighting operations included: four engines, one ladder and one rescue from Attleboro; one engine and one ladder from Rehoboth; two engines and one ladder, one rescue from Seekonk; one engine and one ladder from Swansea; and one engine from North Attleboro. Staged apparatus included: one engine from Easton; one engine from Mansfield; one engine and one ladder from Norton; one engine from Plainville; one engine from Somerset; and one engine and one ladder from Taunton. Rhode Island mutual aid chief officers assisting at the mill and surrounding fires responded from Central Falls, Cranston, East Providence, Johnston, North Providence, North Smithfield, Providence, Smithfield, Tiverton, Warren, Warwick and West Warwick. Massachusetts mutual aid chiefs were from Attleboro, North Attleboro and Swansea.

Lessons learned:

  • Under the most extreme conditions imaginable, the firefighters who were there understood the magnitude of this event and did what they had been trained to do. They performed with dedication and professionalism under conditions that were intolerable. In the early stages of this incident, they faced an inundated communications system, an intense rate of fire spread and having to work in “firestorm” conditions that overwhelmed the resources of fire crews on scene.

  • The incident command system was invaluable in helping to organize a rapidly growing event that eventually involved over 35 agencies.

  • The mobile incident command centers were also of great value during this incident, although they could have been used even more effectively if Pawtucket firefighters had trained with these vehicles and the accompanying staff members before the fire.

  • Pawtucket firefighters learned first hand the benefits of large-diameter hose (LDH). Mutual aid companies that responded with this equipment were able to move more water than Pawtucket units were capable of with three-inch supply lines and with greater speed and efficiency.

  • More than one radio frequency is needed for fire department operations. Although this is something they had been aware of for some time, this incident clearly showed that a fireground operation and dispatch operations cannot be run on a single frequency.

  • An accountability system needs to be developed so that personnel from mutual aid companies operating in the city can be tracked.

  • Additional portable radios are needed for off-duty members who are called in to large incidents.

  • A better system needs to be developed to contact off-duty personnel when they are needed to assist at fire scenes. Currently, department members are contacted at their homes by telephone.

  • A plan needs to be developed for interruptions in air re-supply. This fire took place directly across from Station 4, which is the location of the department’s only air compressor for refilling self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottles. It was made inoperable due to smoke conditions in the area.

Jay K. Bradish/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.