On The Job - Rhode Island

Paul A. Wentworth and Rob Palmer report on a fire that gutted a five-story factory in Providence.


Providence Fire Department Chief James F. Rattigan Personnel: 539 career firefighters Apparatus: 14 engines, eight ladders, one special hazmat heavy rescue, five EMS rescues Population: 160,000 Area: 18 square miles An intense and rapidly moving fire destroyed a five-story factory in...


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Providence Fire Department
Chief James F. Rattigan
Personnel: 539 career firefighters
Apparatus: 14 engines, eight ladders, one special hazmat heavy rescue, five EMS rescues
Population: 160,000
Area: 18 square miles

An intense and rapidly moving fire destroyed a five-story factory in a residential neighborhood of Providence, RI, on Oct. 22, 1996. Two three-story homes across the street from the vacant building were also destroyed and a third home was heavily damaged. Six alarms transmitted within the first 26 minutes of the incident were required to contain the fire spread.

7_97_rhode1.jpg
Photo by Timothy Delaney
Early in the incident, rapid intensification of the fire forced Engine 10 and Ladder 1 to move out of harm's way toward Potters Avenue. Extreme heat conditions forced the tower apparatus to relocate several more times during the incident.

Two 14-year old boys were charged with setting the fire three days after the incident.

Like many Northeast cities, the relocation of industry to outlying towns has left Providence with vacant industrial complexes and abandoned houses. The Gordon Complex, site of the former American Tubing and Webbing Co., was built in the South Providence section of the city in 1898 of typical mill-type brick and heavy timber construction. It measured 75 by 300 feet. A one-story boiler room and storage area ran nearly the full length of the west side. The complex had been vacant since 1994 and had fallen into disrepair. The building's sprinkler system was out of service due to a lack of maintenance.

At 5:42 P.M. on Oct. 22, Providence Fire Alarm received a call reporting smoke coming from the factory, located at 65-109 Gordon Ave. A still box was transmitted for a full first-alarm assignment consisting of Engines 10, 13 and 11, Special Hazards, Ladders 5 and 1, Rescue 1 and Deputy Assistant Chief Paul Wentworth. Engine 10's station was only two blocks from the complex, and as Lieutenant George Barkan and his crew of three firefighters drove up Gordon Avenue from the south at 5:44, he reported a heavy smoke condition and fire showing in the interior of the first floor, possibly extending to the second. He immediately called for a second alarm.

Members of Engine 10 stretched a 2 1/2-inch handline through a door on the northwest side, or Side 1, and used tank water in an effort to knock down the fire. With help from Engine 11's crew, Engine 10's feeders were tied to a hydrant across the street from the center of the building. Other arriving engines were instructed to find their own hydrants and set up master streams.

Wentworth, clearing another call in the vicinity, arrived soon after the first-alarm companies. Beginning his size-up, he noticed fire pushing heavily from five windows on the first floor in the area of Engine 10's attack, and dark smoke swirling out of many others. Engine 10's line was having no effect, and the firefighters withdrew from the building.

7_97_rhode2.jpg
Photo by Daniel Rinaldi
Houses on Gordon Avenue are well involved with fire despite the use of several handlines and master streams.

Anticipating rapid intensification of the fire, Wentworth ordered Engine 10 to disconnect from the hydrant and Ladder 1, which had just set its jacks, to move. The latter, a 95-foot tower, relocated to a vacant lot at the corner of Potters and Gordon avenues, across the street from the fire building. Here, it was in excellent position to sweep its master stream in a 180-degree arc. But, due to the extreme heat, it was forced to move several more times during the night.

Wentworth then checked conditions on Side 3, which faced the backs of 1 1/2-story houses on Baxter Street. He watched as the fire raced from floor to floor and southward the full length of the building at incredible speed, an event he had not witnessed in 30 years of firefighting. "The rapidity of the fire spread was awesome," said Wentworth. Within 13 minutes of the first telephone call to Fire Alarm, the entire building was consumed by fire.

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