The title of this post is the last radio broadcast I heard before I started walking toward downtown Lowell late Friday night. It was almost midnight, or maybe even a little after, and I had just read reports of fire on all five floors of the Picker Building in the Massachusetts Mills complex.
The fire was 90 minutes old by the time I became aware of it, and I did not expect good news, because right before I left my house a friend of mine linked me the photo below, which was taken by Efi Kyriazidis, of Lowell. I’m using it with her permission.
The fire started about 10:30 p.m. The cause remains under investigation, but since there was no electricity or other services in the building, the cause is considered suspicious. Lowell Police, perhaps unintentionally, have already classified the fire as an arson, according to CrimeMapping.com.
Fire Chief Edward Pitta told me today the exact cause remains under investigation.
About 100 residents were evacuated from Massachusetts Mills, which are only about 12 feet from the Picker Building in spots. Meanwhile, Deputy Fire Chief Joe Roth took command of this fire, struck an immediate second alarm, and put his crews to work.
Roth has been off work since this fire so I haven’t been able to talk to him, but on the second alarm Deputy Chief Jeff Winward became the operations commander at the fire. He said Roth, the overall commander, developed the strategy for getting this fire under control, and “did an excellent job.”
This wasn’t my story, but I wanted to share the photo above, and the story of how this fire didn’t turn into a true disaster.
For starters, this mill, the “Picker Building,” which you can read about extensively by following this link, is very difficult to get close to, since it very nearly abuts the occupied portions of the Massachusetts Mills, and the Merrimack and Concord rivers. Here’s a map that shows where it is.
Winward said Firefighter Don Milinazzo drove Ladder 3 into a position where the crew of Ladder 3, Millinazo, Lt. Jack Winward, and Firefighter Larry Finn could extend the truck’s ladder. That was crucial, since this blaze was in the mill’s one and only stairwell that reaches all five floors.
Roth had crews attack the fire from the building’s exterior, initially. The mill is dilapidated, and has holes in the floors, which is why this fire scared me. People have been seriously hurt in falls at this mill before. Imagine walking through it while it’s filled with pitch-black smoke?
Firefighters used Ladder 3 to get water on the fire in the fourth and fifth floors, and drug heavy 2 1/2-inch thick hand lines to get water on the first and second and third floors, according to Winward.
“They attacked it really quickly and they kept it to the stairwell,” Winward said. “It was a really remarkable stop.”
Once the exterior attack got the heavy fire knocked down, crews used the ladder of Ladder 3 to climb into the building’s windows, access each of the five floors, and finish this thing off. Once the heavy fire was knocked down, Winward said crews were able to move cautiously through the building with flashlights to watch for holes.
“That building is dangerous,” Winward said. “Fortunately, near the stairwell, the floors were pretty stable.”
“They did a fantastic job of getting in there the way they did and getting into all five floors almost simultaneously,” said Chief Pitta.
Residents were allowed back into the occupied portions of the Massachusetts Mills by the time I got downtown about 12:30 a.m. Why? On a fire that only went to two-alarms, it was all thanks to the work of an estimated 30 Lowell firefighters.
“If this fire got going, it could have taken the whole mill, and it could have taken the ones on either side of it that were occupied,” Winward said.
As I already reported Sunday, the building’s owners plan to meet with fire department officials on Monday to review he damage and get more information.