Woonsocket (RI) Fire Department Deputy Chief Thomas F. Williams has a favorite word – “obviously.” As in, obviously, local firefighters had no way to stop the eight-alarm fire in June 2011 that swept through the vacant 122-year-old, 280,000 square foot Alice Mills, once the largest rubber goods factory in the world.
“I’ve been to enough of these mill fires to know,” Williams said. “They burn too fast. Obviously, the best thing to do is just let them go and concentrate your resources on protecting any surrounding exposures.”
Last used in 2009 to manufacture plastic packaging, the massive red brick and timber mill dominated by two peaked towers was unusual among historic turn-of-the-century factories in the Woonsocket area in that it had never been subdivided into smaller businesses.
“There are not too many companies these days that can utilize all the space these mills provided,” Williams said. “They are usually chopped up into mixed occupancy. Alice Mills was still four floors of open space save for the support columns down the middle.”
All the machinery had been removed but left something to be remembered. For decades, the mill’s wooden surfaces had been saturated by spilled fuel, lubricants and flammable chemicals used in the manufacturing processes.
Fire officials report that an acetylene torch was in use at the mill the day of the fire with workers removing metal pipe to sell for scrap.
Plans were in the works to give the six-acre Alice Mills complex new life as a site for making wood pellet fuel. The fire brought that dream to an end. The day after the blaze, Alice Mills’ two gutted towers stood over a flattened landscape of ruin.
Located in northern Rhode Island near the Massachusetts border, Woonsocket, population 43,800, lays claim to industrial fame today with a modern 60-acre industrial park that counts the corporate headquarters of CVS Caremark, the largest pharmacy chain in the U.S., among its tenants.
The city covers eight square miles with the Blackstone River flowing through its middle. A host of industrial facilities sprang up along the Blackstone during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, using the flowing water as a power source or as part of the process involved. Most of the mills concentrated on textiles.
Alice Mills, a relative late comer to the area, focused instead on rubber goods such as boots.
Although the mill remained closed during much of the Depression, it found a new footing during World War II, turning out rubber attack boats and barrage balloons used to discourage low-level bombing. Among its clandestine war activities, the mill produced inflatable facsimiles of American tanks that Allied commanders cleverly used to fool the Germans into thinking that the D-Day invasion would take place in Pas-de-Calais, not Normandy.
Alice Mills’ post war prosperity came in producing Keds, the sneakers of choice for a generation of American kids. But by the 1960s, the mill fell on hard times again and closed. In recent years the mill supported only a fraction of the 2,000 employees that worked there in its heyday.
Most of the historic mills in Woonsocket are still in use as industrial or commercial sites, Williams said. As a result, they are well maintained and do not pose chronic problems for firefighters. Only a few of the large mills remain vacant, Alice Mills among them.
The bulk of local fire fighting is residential rather than industrial, Williams said.
“Most of the housing stock is between 70 and 90 years old,” Williams said. “Three-story residential tenement houses are our biggest fire problem.”
The city’s paid fire department consists of 123 members split into four platoons, operating out of separate fire stations. Williams serves as shift supervisor for the Third Platoon.
Woonsocket runs three engine companies, an engine and rescue company that doubles as a squad company, two ladder companies and three Advanced Life Support fire fighting rescue companies that provide EMS and fire response. Each engine company has a 1,250 gpm pumper. Ladder 1 is a 100-foot aerial and Ladder 2 is a 100-foot tower.
At present, each shift consists of a minimum of 23 personnel, down from 28, Williams said. Unfortunately, this requires “browning out” one of the ladder companies on a regular basis in an effort to curb overtime.
In fact, that truck did see action the night of the fire, staffed by firefighters called in early from the next shift. Williams also called in the deputy chiefs from the three other Woonsocket platoons to assist.
“We work very well together,” Williams said. “The four platoons work pretty much in synch. I knew these were the guys that could help me control the fire ground.”
Meanwhile, en route to the scene were firefighters from the surrounding communities of Bellingham, Blackstone, North Smithfield, Cumberland and Burrillville.
Usually, two options exist for reporting a fire at an industrial site from the Alice Mills era. Option one is to activate a pull station near one of the exits. Option two is an alarm triggered when the fire activates the sprinkler system. However, the sprinkler system at Alice Mills had been disabled since February, Williams said.
“It was a wet system,” he said. “When the property was sold, no one maintained the heat indoors. Obviously, the wet system froze. This is a big problem around here. The first day of warm weather we have multiple broken sprinkler pipes throughout the community.”
At 7:32 p.m. on June 7, emergency dispatchers received a master box alarm reporting system trouble at Alice Mills. Protocol requires a single engine company respond to the scene.
“Fortunately, the dispatcher notified me before filling that assignment,” Williams said. “Knowing that this was a mill and based on my experience, I told him to send a first alarm assignment instead.” Three engines, a ladder, a rescue unit and a shift supervisor – Williams – were dispatched to the scene.
Alarms at the mill sites are nothing unusual. At an occupied mill, fire calls typically consist of either an overheated motor or some small problem with a volatile manufacturing process. As a result, firefighters can sometimes let their guard down when responding numerous times to the same location.
“Looking at the size of the occupancy, if we don’t need the extra help, we can turn them around,” Williams said. “It’s better to have them there if needed than not to have them at all.”
The weather was warm for Rhode Island in June – “about 72 degrees with a little humidity,” Williams said. No wind was apparent. Firefighters arrived at Alice Mills within four minutes of the first alarm. Williams was behind the first two companies on the scene.
“We’re quite familiar with the building,” he said. “There were these two big towers — a west tower to the left and an east tower to the right. The towers served as a point of reference throughout the fire.”
Nothing was immediately showing. Firefighters with the first engine to arrive unlocked the front gate of the fenced site and went to the east tower to check the alarm panel inside the building. A ladder company followed close behind.
Williams took a left turn inside the gate to make a reconnaissance of the potential fire ground.
“A good officer should always circle the building,” Williams said. “Still, nothing was showing. It looked just like a routine alarm due to a malfunction.”
Completing his circle, Williams rendezvoused at the east tower with the first engine company. The lieutenant reported that the alarm panel clearly showed trouble. Firefighters had been assigned to investigate the interior of the mill.
“They took their high-rise equipment, which is SOP,” Williams said. “Anytime we go into a large building that has a sprinkler or standpipe system, firefighters are required to carry a high-rise pack of pre-connected 1¾-inch line.”
Two additional engine companies arrived. Williams staged one on Fairmount Street adjacent to the mill to handle water supply and the other in the mill’s large parking lot. Meanwhile, captains with the first companies to arrive proceeded to the west tower to check for fire inside.
Less than a minute later, Williams observed a light smoke condition in three windows of the west tower’s third floor. He notified the firefighters by radio who confirmed they were investigating.
“My initial thought was, ‘Don’t get excited,’” Williams said. “‘Let them investigate. Maybe it’s just a trash can or some other small fire.’”
That proved to be wishful thinking. Within 20 seconds, thick smoke started pushing out those windows, Williams said.
“I notified dispatch that this was a code red, which is our equivalent of a working fire,” he said. “Dispatch sent the squad in place of the browned out ladder to assume the duties of the rapid intervention team.”
Williams decided to relocate his own vehicle to the parking lot to establish an incident command post.
“As I pulled out of the driveway seconds later, I saw at least four windows on the third floor blow completely out, followed by heavy fire,” Williams said. “I told fire dispatch to order the building evacuated.”
The hardest decision for an incident commander is to know when to pull firefighters out of a building, Williams said.
“Had we pulled up and there was any indication of what was in store we certainly would not have sent those guys inside,” he said.
Thankfully, the mill had never been subdivided into a maze of smaller businesses and storage facilities as have many of the local mills, Williams said.
“You can easily lose personnel in there,” he said.
As soon as Williams established the command post, he ordered fire dispatch to conduct a roll call for all three companies who had personnel in the building. No firefighters were missing.
“I realized this thing was much bigger than we could handle,” Williams said. “I’ve been to enough to these to know that it would just take off. We certainly needed help.”
Rhode Island is divided into three mutual aid districts – north, south and central. Woonsocket belongs to the northern division or “northern control,” based in nearby Smithfield. Williams contacted the dispatcher for northern control.
“An old wise chief officer once told me that if you wait until you think you need help, it’s already too late,” Williams said. “You’ve got to start it coming in advance. If you gain control before the help gets there you can always turn it around.”
By chance, a pre-plan or “running card” going up to eight alarms existed for a vacant mill on the opposite side of Fairmount Street from the fire. That mill had long been considered a target hazard, Williams said.
Without careful consideration, an emergency like Alice Mills could quickly drain surrounding communities of all fire fighting resources, he said. A running card lets the dispatcher know that he is only to draw from certain companies in the surrounding area to fill each new alarm.
“We have to leave some companies in the immediate vicinity,” Williams said. “Otherwise, as an increasing number of alarms are struck, equipment must come from further and further away. It’s a proven system that works extremely well.”
Not only would the mutual aid responders be used at the fire scene, but many would backfill Woonsocket fire houses. While Alice Mills burned, another 24 separate alarms were turned in by Woonsocket residents, many owing to the embers spreading across the sky.
“With only two dispatchers on duty, we had to bring in more because the phones were ringing off the hooks,” Williams said. “Also, the dispatchers had to handle calling back nearly 90 off duty firefighters to work the scene.”
A third alarm on the running card was struck, bringing in more aerial ladders. The fire fighting operation shifted from offensive to defensive.
“Our people were safe,” Williams said. “There were no civilians in the building. I wasn’t so much concerned about the structure as the surrounding exposures. That is the strategy we decided to focus on.”
Williams decided to break the overwhelming operation into two sectors, each sector under the command of a shift captain. The captains remained in charge until deputy chiefs being summoned to the scene arrived to take their places.
Still waiting for mutual aid to arrive, Williams turned his attention to the water supply situation. Ordinarily, the 20-inch main beneath River Street would have provided ample fire water. But the amount needed to battle a mill fire would quickly reduce the city’s domestic capacity.
The only alternative was to draft from the nearby Blackstone River, Williams said.
“It was obvious we were going to use a lot of water,” he said. “We were actually in pretty good shape because the river is close. When we drew up a pre-plan for the mill across the street, we had an idea. We used a vacant parcel of land next to the mill to set up a drafting site big enough for three mutual aid front mount pumps.”
Drafting from that location proved invaluable in February when a five-alarm fire broke out at a vacant “dye house” mill north of Alice Mills on First Avenue. Drafting from the Blackstone also plays to the strength of the mutual aid organization, Williams said.
“We are the only fully paid municipal department in northern Rhode Island,” Williams said. “All the surrounding communities are covered by departments that combine paid with volunteer. The rural areas they cover don’t have the municipal water supply we have in Woonsocket. These departments are the experts in drafting operations.”
Along with supplying the drafting pumps, the neighboring departments also provide five-inch diameter hose and several manifolds.
“Because of the previous fire in February, we knew ahead of time where to place the manifolds,” Williams said. “We were very comfortable with that.”
Williams also appointed the city’s water supervisor as his water supply officer for the fire scene.
“He certainly knows the city water supply better than us,” he said.
Only 10 minutes into the fire, most of the upper floors of the mill had been consumed. Within another five minutes, the fire spread throughout the entire building. Firefighters shifted to a defensive operation, Williams said.
“There is a series of decisions that have to be made by the incident commander,” Williams said. “Number one was to talk directly to the mutual aid dispatch center and make them aware of what we needed.”
The second call went to the Providence and Worcester Railroad with an order to stop all train traffic through the fire ground area, Williams said. A section of the track lay within the mill’s collapse zone. Also, a train could potentially block an important intersection, hindering the arrival of further apparatus.
“A train did attempt to come through 35 to 45 minutes into the operation,” Williams said. “It was stopped. It was an 80-car ethanol train coming back empty from the Port of Providence.”
A number of incident command system decisions had to be made. Sectors for EMS and hazmat had to be established in preparation for the anticipated mutual aid.
“Obviously, as incident commander, your overall goal is to manage the fire ground as safely as possible,” Williams said. “You position chief officers in different sectors or divisions. You assign tasks to the people you know can get the job done. If they can’t complete the task, report to me and I’ll find another solution or send you more help.”
A staging area for the expected equipment had to be established and an officer placed in charge. Also a number of safety officers had to be appointed.
“Of course, the fire is not waiting while all this is going on,” Williams said.
Once operations went defensive, Williams turned his concern to four residences across Fairmount Street that were taking the brunt of the radiant heat generated by the mill fire.
“These homes had vinyl siding, which is very susceptible to heat,” Williams said. “The vinyl started melting like a son of a gun. The only way to really cover an exposure like this is to put direct water on it.”
In particular, firefighters needed ladder pipes and portable monitors.
“We needed the height that a ladder pipe gives you,” Williams said. “It was the only way to get up and over these tenement houses.”
Soon the first of the mutual aid departments arrived, led by their chiefs and deputy chiefs.
“We don’t get to train with them that often; but they’re familiar with making runs into the city to help us, or sometimes we run out to help them,” Williams said. “It works both ways.”
Exposures continued to be the major concern. Beside the houses on Fairmount Street, the fire now threatened residences on River Street, across the railroad tracks from the rear of the mill. Williams assigned one of the mutual aid chiefs to investigate. He reported that several exposures needed immediate attention, including a small fire on the roof of a commercial structure.
Thanks to the relatively calm weather, that blaze was the only secondary structure fire attributed to burning embers. Williams said he assigned several task forces to tour the neighborhoods searching for embers.
“We had a mill fire back in May 2007 where I served as incident commander,” Williams said. “We had a 35 miles per hour wind blowing right through a congested neighborhood. As a result, we had 21 exposures that suffered some kind of damage.”
Williams now faced adding a third division to the rapidly expanding fire.
“This new operation was fairly far away from what the rest of us were doing,” he said. Freshly arriving mutual aid responders were assigned to protect the exposures behind the mill. Firefighters quickly extinguished the fire atop the commercial structure. During the later part of the Alice Mills operation, radiant heat also ignited a railroad bridge crossing the river.
“It was one of their abandoned lines, so we were able to take care of that pretty rapidly,” Williams said.
Police evacuated the endangered homes along Fairmount and River streets. Crowd control soon became an issue for police as well. With the fire and smoke visible from nearly 25 miles away, the curious rushed to the scene. Police were forced to cordon off the fire ground to keep them away.
The captains in charge of the initial two divisions were relieved by deputy chiefs. The third deputy chief took charge of the new division in charge of the River Street exposures. Each deputy chief was assigned a captain who served as a safety officer.
“Now the command structure was pretty much set,” Williams said. “It did take a while, probably 45 minutes, to get everybody in place.”
The staging area was filling up with much needed apparatus. Other special sectors were getting business too, particularly the EMS sector which handled firefighter rehab.
“We actually had the head of the emergency department at the city hospital at the fire scene,” Williams said. “He ran the EMS along with the EMS director.” Meanwhile, the hazmat sector conducted air monitoring.
Two firefighters were transported to the hospital during the fire, both suffering dehydration, Williams said.
“Considering the scope of the event with more than 200 personnel on the scene, it was pretty remarkable no one else was injured,” he said.
Another necessary staff function was logistics. Apparatus needed to be refueled, Williams said. And, because the operation at the scene was expected to last many days, issues such as food and bathroom facilities had to be addressed.
As rapidly as the firefighters moved to set up the fire ground operations, the fire moved faster. In only a short time, the building was collapsing on itself. By midnight, firefighters were ready to declare the event contained.
“We started the process of downsizing the incident, particularly with regard to mutual aid,” Williams said. “Some of these companies had come from all over the state and nearby Massachusetts. Those who came from the furthest away were the first to go back.”
Williams also worked to release Woonsocket firefighters on callback scheduled to work the next shift.
“We knew they would be coming back, so we sent them home first,” Williams said. “The members from Platoon B which had just completed their scheduled tour were the last group to be released.”
The fire still fell far short of extinguishment. Fire fighting efforts continued through the morning hours.
“There were pockets of fire beneath the rubble that burned for days,” Williams said. “By 8 a.m., we were still running master appliances.”
It was be 6 p.m. Saturday before firefighters felt comfortable turning the fire scene over to the property owners. A private contractor was brought in to handle demolition. But even then fire issues lingered.
“We needed to get a crane to pick up the debris in order to extinguish the remaining fire with hand lines,” Williams said.
Historic mill properties such as Alice Mills present few problems if properly maintained. Alice Mills was one of only three or four such giant mills standing vacant in Woonsocket. The rest were occupied and operated as businesses.
“Once the building is vacant, squatters get in there, kids play around it,” Williams said. “We’ve got other mills nearby that are just waiting to go.”
Once fire takes hold in these giant structures, options are limited to one – protect the exposures, he said.
“When you’ve got limited resources, manpower and water, it is obviously all you can do. Even if resources were unlimited, the safety of our members dictates fire ground strategy. In this incident, a defensive stance was taken to protect the exposures.”