Marsh ordered firefighters to stay out of the cavernous three-story building and to fight the fire from the outside because it was so intense and fast-moving, and also because of the danger posed by holes in the floor that were designed to allow cranks to reach down to the fast-flowing water in the North Canal and spin the mill’s turbines.
“Most of it was outside firefighting,” he said. “We couldn’t get to the back and when we got here, the front was bowing out.”
Instead, as dark descended, a web of five snorkel platforms and ladders ascended over the mill, shooting water collected from hydrants as far as a quarter mile down Merrimack Street. Firefighters from a Dracut pumper truck broke through the ice covering the canal to supplement what the hydrants provided, although Marsh said pressure was never an issue.
Pushed along by wind out of the west, the fire spread quickly east through the mill, consuming its wooden interior and its roof section-by-section in less than two hours but sparing the brick facade. Marsh said he will meet with building inspectors on the property over the next day or so and expected they will order the exterior demolished.
The fire also ripped through the plywood that boarded up the windows for the last several years, shooting tongues of flame through the windows so that the massive support beams inside could be seen crashing one-by-one to the floor. Heat from the fire could be felt across the canal, where hundreds of spectators, reporters and camera crews gathered.
At times, the mood seemed festive through the unfolding disaster, as children weaved around hoses on bicycles and adults grinned for cell-phone pictures against the burning landmark.
Four helicopters, from television stations and the state police, circled. Ten Red Cross volunteers served water, coffee and meals from Wendy’s and McDonald’s restaurants to police and firefighters, and to the Patriot Ambulance crews who remained idle through the evening because there were no injuries.