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

Lawrence, MA, is an impoverished New England mill town a mile from the Malden Mills complex. The small city (just over six densely-populated square miles) has been a hotbed of arson throughout the 1990s, with hundreds of multiple alarms and working fires in vacant and occupied structures alike. A vigorous crackdown, with state police and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) assistance, has apparently succeeded in quieting things recently; so far 1996 has shown little fire activity and the beleaguered Lawrence firefighters are enjoying the respite. But hundreds of boarded-up vacant buildings remain, and Lawrence isn't out of the woods yet.

This reporter, accompanied by Firehouse photographer John Cetrino, was visiting Lawrence on the afternoon of Feb. 27, interviewing the members of Ladder 5 for their slant on the Malden Mills fire. The three-man crew had just backed the snorkel truck into quarters after assisting in a successful car-in-the-water rescue. The temperature was an unseasonal 60 degrees but the water in the Spicket River had been closer to freezing. The shivering truckies (Lieutenant Jim Lofreddo, driver Frank Martin and roof man Jimmy Gaffney) were called immediately by Methuen Fire Chief Keith Bourassa, principally to help with extrication of mill employees on the upper floors of the first building to burn.

8_96_mass9.jpg
Photo by George Hall
Firefighters from Lawrence Ladder 5 await water as fire rolls from the cockloft of the fire building.


8_96_mass10.jpg
Photo by George Hall
A master stream operates into the involved top floor.

While we were talking, a civilian knocked on the front door, pointed west and said, "You guys oughta look at this." Strong black smoke was puffing from a commercial building on the main drag two blocks away. The house radio squawked at the same moment and Ladder 5 roared out of the house on the first alarm.

A Lawrence working fire (a city fire inspector on the scene was calling in "heavy fire showing") turns out most of the city's pared-down professional department: four of its six engine companies and both ladders (a 100-foot straight stick and the 85-foot snorkel). The companies normally run with an officer and two firefighters each not a lot of people to handle a substantial fire in a row of stores with eight apartments above. On our arrival a minute later, fire was showing from two sides of the second floor, and the eaves were puffing all around; the entire cockloft was charged. The job called for a furious and instantaneous water attack but the understaffed department had to search the occupied building first there were not enough people to do both at once.

A babysitter and her charge were in a panicky state on a rear balcony; their escape had been cut off and the teenager wanted to drop her five-year old niece to the firefighters below. Engineman Jim Oberon calmed her down in Spanish while the crew of Engine 6 grabbed its 18-foot extension ladder and effected a quick rescue of the two girls.

8_96_mass11.jpg
Photo by John Cetrino
Firefighters operate numerous handlines from an exposure roof into the top floor.


8_96_mass12.jpg
Photo by John Cetrino
Two people were rescued from the rear of the building as the fire spread rapidly.

By the time the secondary search and rescues had been completed, the building was out of luck. The entire top floor was burning and fire was breaking through the roof in several places. Department Chief Dick Shafer, as he had so many times in the previous six years, struck three alarms and radioed for mutual aid. Nearby Lowell, another tired mill city with plenty of fire work, sent its new Ladder 2. The Salem, NH, Fire Department, some six miles distant and another frequent visitor to Lawrence workers, responded with an engine and a tower ladder equipped with dual 1,000-gpm deck guns in the bucket. Master streams from these rigs and the Lawrence snorkel gradually beat the fire into submission. All living units on the upper floors were ruined, and the four ground-floor businesses suffered extensive water and smoke damage.

As his firefighters overhauled the sodden structure, Shafer said, "These guys work their hearts out but there's just so much you can do with three people per rig. No one killed or hurt, that's always the big thing.

"In New York you can strike a third alarm on a joint like this and get, what, a hundred guys? We have about 30 and that's with the help from Salem. These mutual aid companies bail us out all the time and the city has gotten used to it. The mayor actually said in a speech that these other departments should be grateful for the chance to work in Lawrence for all the training they get! It's embarrassing."