WOONSOCKET — Disasters put people in the position of having to make a decision that can't be called back, rethought, or corrected when they are wrong.
The disaster creates pressure to be dead-on right that firefighters feel whenever they arrive at a scene like they found at the former Alice Mill of the U.S. Rubber Co. at 85 Fairmount St. early in the evening of June 7, 2011.
The historic four-story brick and wood mill was burning inside but had not yet sent out the tell-tale column of angry black smoke signaling a mill fire and the unknown nature of the alarm calling them there was the biggest danger.
In those early moments of arrival and initial response the Woonsocket Fire Department made decisions that would ultimately outweigh the physical damage caused by the ever-increasing flames during a disaster destined to become the most significant the city suffered in 2011.
Deputy Fire Chief Thomas F. Williams, now retired, made the first of many important decisions of the day when he ordered a full-alarm response as the call came into the fire department headquarters.
The local crews did not see fire when they arrived at 85 Fairmount St. and set up for an entry. But as six department members began to pull their lines up stairs to the second floor, Williams spotted a plume of smoke emerging from the front windows of the third floor and issued an order to recall all the crews inside the building. At the same time, the ascending firefighters got a glimpse into the second floor area and saw its ceiling broiling with flame.
Seconds later, the fire erupted from windows on the third and fourth floor in a flashover that could have claimed the lives of firefighters had they been in those areas.
The eruption of the flames signaled the end of a mill structure that had once helped the U.S. Rubber Co. play a key role in the nation's war effort-- the production of rubber life rafts for the Army Air Corps and the Navy and even barrage balloons for the aerial defense of London.
It later produced tennis shoes and sneakers popular with kids in the 1950s and 1960s and under a rebirth as the cosmetic packaging company, Tech Industries, continued to support the city's economy with more than 300 jobs into the new century.
That all became little more than historical facts as the flames ate up the old shop floors and all their economic promise for a new economic revival at Fairmount Street as the night descended on the area.
The cause of the fire was later determined to be accidental in nature and related to rehabilitation work being done for property owner Steve Triedman's plan to locate a wood pellet processing operation in the former mill.
From the slide lines, the risks for firefighters remain all to apparent as explosions deep inside the plant sent greater clouds of black smoke skyward and pieces of burning mill debris threatened to set fire to other property in the drop zone running into the North end.
The destruction of the plant's internal utility services caused a transformer to blow over the heads of the assembled fire crews and likely caused the power outage on Main Street that would darken The Call building at the sametime. The power outage caused the newspaper's editors, sportswriters, photographers and reporters to work on the next day's paper by flashlight on jury-rigged computer equipment. The completed pages of the paper then had to be sent by telephone to the Worcester Telegram for printing so readers could have a fire edition the following day.
The disaster tested Deputy Chief Thomas J. Williams with another important decision before his first-on-scene duties ended that evening. Knowing a Providence &Worcester Railroad train was on its way into the city with carloads of gasoline additive head to the rails next to the burning mill, Williams put in a call to city dispatchers to get the train stopped and it was, just in time. Mayor Leo T. Fontaine listed that decision among the city success stories he highlighted during his recent inauguration speech but it was the only one of many made that day and Williams was not the only firefighter to think right along the way. Fire Chief Gary Lataille was joined by the Blackstone Valley's veteran fire chiefs who seen many similar disasters in their careers, Bellingham Fire Chief Richard F. Ranieri, Blackstone Fire Chief Michael Sweeney and many, many more among them.
The mill was lost for all time, but not a single person, not a single firefighter failed to go home that that day. The decisions proved to be the right ones, even if they counted for managing just one fire, just that day's call to do a job.