On The Job - Massachusetts

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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."

George Hall

Photo by Marc Breault
A ladder pipe is positioned to hit the rapidly spreading fire. Flames burned two vacant buildings and spread to two occupied stores.

Photo by Marc Breault
The rear of this building and most of the upper floors have collapsed, minutes before the collapse shown in the photo sequence below.

6 Departments Battle Fires At Holyoke Industrial Sites

Holyoke, MA, Nov. 23, 1995 A general-alarm fire destroyed four industrial buildings, requiring the response of firefighters from six departments. Several nearby exposures were protected by firefighters using13 engines and five ladder companies.

Photo by Marc Breault

Photo by Marc Breault

Photo by Marc Breault

Above: With most of the floors burned away and the rear wall gone, the front of the building separates from the side walls and collapses into the street.

Photo by Marc Breault
The fire originated in a vacant mill and spread to three other buildings.

George Hall, a Firehouse® correspondent, is a California-based fire service writer and photographer.