No one was seriously injured in the fire at the former Greenhalgh Mills, which was being demolished to make way for a shopping center anchored by a Stop & Shop supermarket. Neighborhood residents had mounted fierce opposition to the project at the 15-acre site in heavily populated northeast Pawtucket.
Pawtucket's fire marshal, Lieutenant Tim McLaughlin, said last night that the cause of the fire was unknown.
Police and fire officials evacuated a 10-block radius around the blaze, which began shortly before 3 p.m. and was contained four hours later. The evacuees included 450 students from the Curvin-McCabe Elementary School, many of whom left with their faces covered to avoid breathing the heavy smoke that blew eastward in billowing, black plumes.
Firefighters from throughout Rhode Island and several southeastern Massachusetts communities fought flames driven by wind gusts of more than 40 miles per hour. Residents hosed down their homes in a desperate attempt to save them. By midnight, 60 people displaced by the fire had registered with the American Red Cross of Rhode Island. Forty-four planned to take shelter for the night at the junior high school, sleeping on cots in the school's gym and sharing pizza in the dining hall. About a half dozen children were among those present, including a 4-month-old baby. The others had gone home with friends or family.
Mayor James Doyle of Pawtucket compared the spread of the fire, fueled by driving winds, to California wildfires that hopped over buildings.
"How do you control something such as this? That's what makes it particularly horrific," he said. "In my opinion, and I've talked with many people, this is probably the worst fire that the city in modern history has ever had to face."
Every fire department in the state of Rhode Island and several in southeastern Massachusetts responded to the fire.
Eleven people went to Memorial Hospital with injuries, most of which appeared minor. A hospital spokesman said three of them had been admitted; she did not know their conditions. One firefighter suffered a minor eye injury, Doyle said.
By 10:30 p.m., a four- to five-block radius around the mill had been cordoned off, with small fires still burning in some homes, and in the mill itself.
McLaughlin, said flying embers from the blaze ignited a house on Willard Street, five blocks from the burning mill. McLaughlin, his face and undershirt covered with soot, said: "I think most guys will tell you that this is a career fire. It's as devastating as any that I've seen in the city of Pawtucket." Traffic was snarled for miles around the fire; electricity for 2,600 homes was cut off; and residents returning to the neighborhood were barred from checking on their homes.
Susan Sczuroski, who had been working at Lincoln Greyhound Park when she heard about the fire, picked up two of her sons and tried to drive to her home two blocks from the blaze.
As she approached the apartment, Sczuroski said, the air was filled with thick smoke that caused her to cough and gasp. A police officer picked her out with a flashlight, she said, and blocked her from going to the house to look for her husband, another son, and a daughter.
Sczuroski, who moved into the apartment a month ago, said she was frantic. "My husband is there," she said she told the officer. "I'm sure he's not there anymore," she said the officer replied. "They have evacuated everyone."
Later, Sczuroski remained shaken by the blaze. "Oh, my God, it's terrible," she said. "I'm just hoping our house is OK."
Louis DeLomba said he had been picking up his children from school, across the street from the mill, when he saw the fire. "There was nothing we could do," DeLomba said. "We never thought it would blow out like this."
The 250,000-square-foot mill, which had been vacant since 1998, was in the process of being demolished, said David Monti, spokesman for Churchill & Banks, a Providence development company involved in the renovation. Workers for the Coventry Wrecking Co. finished demolishing a small building behind the mill at about 2:25 p.m. and did not notice anything suspicious before they left the area about 2:30 p.m., said Ronald F. Travers, Pawtucket's code-enforcement director.
Travers said he reached the scene about 3:05 p.m. and saw the west side of the mill engulfed in flames. His office was investigating a report of an earlier, small explosion at the mill, he said. "We're trying to determine if there was a gas line to the building." Asbestos was removed from the complex about six weeks ago, Travers said.
Asked whether anyone had questioned the demolition crew that was working today, Mayor Doyle said, "I haven't. I have the feeling somebody will."
"Everything at this point in time is being looked at," Doyle said. He said that there was oil soaked into the old floor of the mill; he had seen that himself before the fire. Fire officials could not say whether there were chemicals in the building as well.
At 7:11 p.m., the fire was declared under control.
"It was incredible. When you have a fire shoot over houses to other houses two blocks away, that makes it kind of scary," Doyle said.
Concerning the cause of the fire, McLaughlin, the fire marshal, said: "We haven't determined anything. There are a lot of interviews that need to be done."
McLaughlin said officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and representatives from the state Department of Environmental Management will begin their investigation this morning. Monti, of the development company, said last night he had no information whether the fire is suspected to be arson. "We have no idea on what the cause was," he said. "The fire marshal is to determine that."
Monti also said he did not know whether chemicals or other highly combustible materials were in the buildings. "In any old building, there's a lot of stuff in it, and I'm sure that Churchill & Banks was removing whatever was required."
Sandra Henriquez, who lives near the mill, said her father told her their house was destroyed. "He said that the ceilings have come down," Henriquez told WCVB-TV (Channel 5). "I just saw it on the news, and I didn't think it was my house. I said to my co-workers that I was going to head over and see if my family is OK."
Thomas Belmont, who lives nearby, said his house had burned down. "I really can't think of anything," Belmont said. "I just hope for the best. You can only go down so far before you go up again."
Belmont said that a neighborhood group, Citizens Against Stop & Shop, had been formed several months ago because of concerns about traffic and its effect on children attending the nearby school.
Maria Papa, a former supervisor who worked at the mill for 16 years, said she watched television in disbelief as the fire destroyed the mill. "I think it's terrible. It's very sad to see a company that was in business for so many years go out of business," said Papa, who supervised the cloth room's rolling and drying department.
"It's like a tragic ending to the textile industry in Rhode Island," she said.
In 2001, Churchill & Banks received zoning approval for a commercial building to hold multiple tenants on the property, as well as a gas station, two drive-up restaurant windows, and two restaurants larger than 2,500 square feet. Neighbors had objected to the $10 million plan.
Greenhalgh Mills, which opened at the turn of the 20th century, was a major manufacturer of acetate liners for suit jackets and dresses. In 1993, the mill was granted a 10-year city tax break in return for a pledge to keep 125 jobs at the site. In 1998, the City Council reviewed the deal and discovered that Woodhall Weaving Mills, which had succeeded Greenhalgh, had only 45 employees and was about to close.
At a late-evening press conference, Mayor Doyle became broken up when speaking about some of the people who had lost their homes, including one woman he has known for 50 years. US Representative Patrick Kennedy was standing beside the mayor but did not speak.
Globe correspondents Jared Stearns and Heather Allen contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used.
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