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...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

First-due fire units from Methuen and Lawrence concentrated on rescue and evacuation. The primary search of the flocking building had to be aborted as the 500-foot brick mill became fully involved. Moriarty requested a dozen additional ambulances from surrounding communities, and Methuen Fire Chief Keith Bourassa began reaching out for mutual aid that would eventually involve 55 departments in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The total firefighter turnout into the following day exceeded 450.

As with the doomed ocean liner Titanic, fate worked overtime to mess things up. The weather was nightmarish: single-digit temperatures and howling 40-mph winds led to wind-chill factors around 50 degrees below zero. The wind was out of the west and blowtorched the fire into Malden's other buildings first the processing buildings immediately east, then into the main building and the dye house. Above ground, the personnel tunnels efficiently spread the fire, although the wind-blown flames easily bridged the 50-foot gaps between structures. Nearby buildings to the north and south were spared.

The complex's sprinkler system failed. The four buildings were sprinklered in series and supplied by a single fire pump in the adjacent boiler rooms. When the explosion in the flocking building brought down the ceilings (and the sprinkler plumbing), water was cut off to the other mills down the line. The other buildings lacked individual sprinkler outlets, so firefighters couldn't lead into the systems from the outside.

8_96_mass7.jpg
Photo by Jon Hill
Firefighters from 55 departments in Massachusetts and New Hampshire responded to the inferno. Many were in for a long, tough night.

As the flames spread, fire companies poured onto the property and set up dozens of master streams, few of which had much effect. Lawrence's Ladder 5, an 85-foot snorkel (see story on page 46), took part in the original searches and then was relocated five times as the fire raced past one position after another.

"We dumped water on this thing for hours, and nothing made any difference," Ladder 5 Lieutenant Jimmy Lofreddo recalled. "The amazing thing is that we were never really cold in the bucket; the radiated heat was just tremendous."

The flow of companies was orchestrated first by Haverhill Fire Command and later out of Fire Alarm in Salem, NH, six miles away. New Hampshire companies, which eventually outnumbered the outfits from Massachusetts, staged in Salem and responded to Methuen as needed. At the height of the fire, embers the size of footballs were falling by the thousands in residential areas east of the fire, and about 20 engine companies spent the night chasing incipient fires as far as two miles from Malden Mills. Many homes suffered fire damage to roofs; one building, the New England Furniture Stripping and Refinishing Co. on Annis Street in Methuen, was destroyed from the roof down. Engine companies from Northampton, MA, and Salem successfully protected the residential exposures on either side. Police units evacuated about 50 homes in several blocks east of the main fire.

At dawn, the buildings continued to burn, and the full magnitude of the disaster could be appreciated. The main buildings, originally four mill stories high, were almost totally collapsed except for the odd section of wall. The destruction could hardly have been more complete. The damage would run into the tens of millions, and almost all of the 2,500 Malden Mills employees would be thrown out of work for two weeks before Christmas.

Malden Mills owner Aaron Feuerstein made international headlines when he promised to keep all employees on full pay and benefits while he pressed ahead with plans to resume manufacturing operations in adjacent unoccupied buildings. Feuerstein was substantially insured, and he will be getting financial help from the state as he rebuilds a much larger, high-tech facility.

8_96_mass6.jpg
Photo by John Cetrino
Piles of buried rubble burn after the buildings have collapsed. Firefighters use hoselines to cool debris during the latter stages of the fire.


8_96_mass8.jpg
Photo by John Cetrino
As the buildings became fully involved, embers the size of footballs rained on nearby neighborhoods. Twenty engine companies were used for brand patrol as far away as two miles.

Third Alarm In Lawrence