On The Job - Massachusetts

George Hall reports on a fiery explosion in a gigantic clothing production complex in Methuen. Coverage of major fires in Lawrence and Holyoke also is featured.


METHUEN FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief Keith Bourassa Personnel: 95 career firefighters Apparatus: Five engines, one ladder, one rescue unit, three ambulances Population: 40,000 Area: 28 square miles It has been called the " Titanic Syndrome." An amazing number of things all go wrong at once...


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METHUEN FIRE DEPARTMENT
Chief Keith Bourassa
Personnel: 95 career firefighters
Apparatus: Five engines, one ladder, one rescue unit, three ambulances
Population: 40,000
Area: 28 square miles

It has been called the "Titanic Syndrome." An amazing number of things all go wrong at once. Subtract any one element and the entire situation would change completely. But no such luck.

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Photo by Jay L. Heath
A firefighter walks past a snorkel as the building in the background is well involved. First-in Methuen and Lawrence concentrated on rescue and evacuation. Numerous workers were injured at the complex, which employed thousands.


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Photo by Jay L. Heath
Companies operate and do what they can awaiting mutual aid companies to arrive as fire spreads across the top floor of the large building.

A fiery explosion in the gigantic Malden Mills complex in Methuen, MA, on the night of Dec. 11, 1995, led to the destruction of four 19th-century mill buildings and some 30 injuries, many of them life-threatening. Malden Mills, a successful producer of fabrics and fleece for cold weather clothing, was the largest employer (2,500 workers in two shifts) in the economically depressed region an hour northwest of Boston.

The initial explosion occurred in the center of Malden's flocking building, located along the Spicket River on the western edge of the complex. Investigators have traced the explosion to one of two causes: lint in the air (a lint explosion in this same building seriously injured six employees in 1993) or vaporized heat transfer fluid (HTF) that is pumped among several huge fabric driers via a network of pipes. The latter possibility is far more likely. The first-floor fireball filled the entire building with fire almost immediately. About 50 night-shift employees were on the job, and 27 of them suffered terrible burn and concussion injuries.

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Photo by Roger B. Conant
The Lawrence snorkel and North Reading aerial ladder prepare to make a stand but had to be repositioned due to the fast-moving fire fanned by high winds.


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Photo by Jon Hill
The Lawrence snorkel operates its master stream into what looks like a sea of fire. It had to reposition five times during the fire. Despite the frigid night and high winds, firefighters in the snorkel basket said they never felt cold.

The initial response brought a first alarm from the Methuen Fire Department and emergency medical units from Lawrence General Hospital, a mile away. Paramedic Brian Moriarty, a rescue lieutenant in the Haverhill Fire Department and a Lawrence emergency medical technician (EMT), took charge as EMS incident commander while en route to the scene. Methuen's first-arriving unit, a rescue ambulance, reported heavy fire and at least 20 injuries and the possibility that many more people were trapped in the structure. Moriarty declared a Level 3 mass casualty incident, radioing dispatch for at least 10 ambulances and all four medevac helicopters from Boston and Worcester.

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Photo by Scott LaPrade
The first building involved suffered a major collapse within an hour as a master stream appliance is played on nearby a structure.

The units met up at the main entrance guard shack. Moriarty assigned his partner, Jim Murphy, to handle triage with the two Methuen medics, Jimmy Garrity and Tracy Ouellette.

"I had done little triages at car accidents but never anything this bad," Murphy said later. "The big problem was that we couldn't really separate the injured into threes it seemed like everyone we saw was a priority one, about to die at any moment. They were wandering around in the cold like zombies, with the worst burns I've ever seen. Some of these people, I still can't believe they all made it." The seven victims with the most serious injuries were evacuated by air to Boston, the rest were taken by ambulances to several area hospitals.

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