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PHOTOS: Pawtucket Mill Fire

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Search on for cause of Pawtucket fire

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Investigators from the state fire marshal's office, state police, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives join local officials as the mill complex continues to smolder.

BY DAVID McFADDEN Journal Staff Writer | Sunday, November 16, 2003

'I saw flames flying out of my mother's window and out of my little sister's room . . . . Now, there's nothing left. There's one right wall leaning against my mother's Mustang. Everything else is gone.'

BRIAN TWEEDLY, 19

'It was a very trying time, and it could have been a lot worse. I will thank [the firefighters] again. They saved our city.'

RICHARD J. RENZI

Acting Fire Chief

PAWTUCKET -- Charred remains inside the sprawling Greenhalgh Mill complex continued to smolder yesterday afternoon as firefighters put out hot spots, sending thin columns of white smoke into the air.

Fire investigators said yesterday that they are still trying to determine what sparked the massive blaze that erupted Friday inside the century-old mill complex in the city's Darlington area. Fanned by 45-mph winds, the fire quickly engulfed the circa-1906 mill, and towering flames and airborne embers rained fire on the neighborhood.

The fire destroyed eight houses and damaged nine others on Friday afternoon, according to Lt. Timothy McLaughlin, the city fire marshal.

The police have cordoned off the 17 destroyed or damaged houses. Firefighters returned a couple of times yesterday to a house at the corner of Willard Street and Darlingdale Avenue to douse wind-fueled flare-ups.

Investigators from the state fire marshal's office, state police, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined Pawtucket fire and police officials in looking for the cause yesterday. City officials said demolition workers were salvaging old wooden beams before the fire broke out, but fire investigators said demolition crews had not been questioned.

"I don't think that anybody has been questioned officially," acting Fire Chief Richard J. Renzi said yesterday.

The vacant mill complex, its wooden floors soaked with years of oil build-up, was in the first stages of demolition to pave the way for a shopping plaza. Richard P. Baccari, head of Churchill & Banks, the development company that owns the land, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Renzi said yesterday that Pawtucket firefighters were enveloped in thick, dark smoke shortly after the mill fire started as they battled to prevent the shooting flames from spreading to neighboring houses.

"You almost couldn't tell they were there. They stood their ground and did an excellent job," Renzi said. " . . . It was a very trying time, and it could have been a lot worse. I will thank them again. They saved our city."

Governor Carcieri, who toured the fire-ravaged neighborhood with city and state officials yesterday, praised the Pawtucket firefighters as well as those from the 17 surrounding Rhode Island and Massachusetts communities that sent crews and equipment to the scene Friday.

"This could have turned into a real disaster for this city," Carcieri said.

"With that wind, this could've turned into an enormous conflagration. I think the response was tremendous," he said on a visit to a Willard Street house damaged by the fire. Referring to the nearby Curvin-McCabe Elementary School, which was dismissing students when the huge fire erupted, Carcieri said, "they stopped it before it got through to the school."

Renzi said that, at its peak, there were as many as 400 firefighters battling the mill fire and surrounding house blazes.

Mayor James Doyle said that 14 Pawtucket firefighters received medical treatment. As of yesterday afternoon, two city firefighters were still hospitalized in Memorial Hospital, one for chest pains and the other for an eye injury. Twelve other city firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation on the day of the fire, Doyle said.

Officials said that five of the eight houses destroyed by flames were on Kenyon Avenue, on a dense rectangular parcel that abutted the mill complex, located on a roughly 15-acre site at Cottage Street and George Bennett Industrial Highway. Two of the ravaged houses were on Darlingdale Avenue, and one was on Willard Street, roughly three-eighths of a mile away from the roaring mill fire, according to McLaughlin.

Six houses sustained major damage and the remaining three were only slightly damaged, Doyle said.

When Brian Tweedly, 19, heard a massive fire had engulfed the mill complex 30 yards behind his family's house at 78 Kenyon Ave., he said he rushed home from his plastering job in a panic. He arrived home to see his house "lit up."

"I saw flames flying out of my mother's window and out of my little sister's room on the second floor," Tweedly said yesterday, wrapped up in a blanket at the Fire Department's station on Cottage Street. "Now, there's nothing left. There's one right wall leaning against my mother's Mustang. Everything else is gone."

Tweedly said he and his family are taking shelter with family members.

McLaughlin said it wasn't clear how many people were evacuated, but estimated that the evacuation covered a five-block radius. "We were controlling chaos. We don't have a figure right now of how many people were evacuated," he said.

Barbara E. McGann, executive director of the American Red Cross of Rhode Island, said that, as of yesterday afternoon, 48 residents had used the relief agency's temporary emergency shelter at Jenks Junior High, which is due to close today at about 9 p.m. Twenty-five of them had stayed there overnight. The Red Cross and the city will continue assisting those who lost their homes.

In a bright spot, McGann announced that toy manufacturer Hasbro Inc. donated $25,000 to assist those displaced by the fire.

The mayor thanked businesses for "overwhelming" offers of assistance. "The response we have seen is absolutely unbelievable," Doyle said.

He said the Curvin-McCabe School should be open tomorrow.

Narragansett Electric spokeswoman Jackie Barry said the company was able to restore power to all residential customers by 4:30 p.m. yesterday. A few commercial customers were still waiting for their power to be fully restored as of 5 p.m. yesterday, she said.

McLaughlin, the city fire marshal, said, "We don't know what the damage estimate is at this time."

Fire and police officials said they would hold a news conference today at about noon to discuss the ongoing investigation into the cause.

Story from The Providence Journal

Images from Channel 10

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Wow, that's amazing! What's up with all the major fires in Rhode Island?

Did they say they were tearing it down anyway for a shopping plaza?

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Mill fires are pretty common, we had one in Woonsocket in June or July, but it stayed within the mill. There's lots of nasty combustibles strewn about mill sites often. The hazardous waste laws a hundred years ago were more lax, to put it lightly. The floors of this mill were likely soaked with a century of waste oil. The winds carried the fire into neighbouring residential areas. There was thick smoke pouring across parts of Massachusetts for a while. I was taking the commuter rail home from Boston around 5pm and we had to sit outside Pawtucket for a while. Amtrak trains were delayed for a while too.

They were in the process of tearing down the mill to build a Stop & Shop. Early speculation was that demolition work could have triggered the blaze. The fire marshall has determined where in the mill the fire started, but they aren't releasing any details.

17 homes were damaged or destroyed and 28 families displaced. Elsewhere, we had a mid-air plane collision over Westerly airport, and a restaurant in Providence destroyed by fire over the weekend. Not a good weekend for RI.

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Incredible pictures. Those old mills look so cool but they burn so fast. It's too bad for tall the neighbors. Sad to see so many abandoned mills around New England.

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These are some pictures of the aftermath from The Providence Journal.

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Amazing pics. I was in the area when the Woonsocket burned this last summer. It was amazing how quickly the mill burned!

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