EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 14, 2014

Mill fires burned into city history

By Jill Harmacinski

---- — LAWRENCE — Giant, relentless winter fires, particularly in mill buildings, are a major part of the city’s history.

On Dec. 11, 1995, a massive, wind-fueled blaze destroyed three buildings at Malden Mills on Route 28 (Broadway) becoming one of the worst fires in state history. Some 200 firefighters from across Massachusetts and New Hampshire came to the city to help local crews battle raging 50-foot flames on the 29-acre property.

About 300 people were working in the building when a boiler exploded, rupturing nearby gas mains and allowing walls of fire to quickly engulf the buildings. More than three dozen workers were injured, some critically.

According to reports, the blaze was fueled by chemicals and flammable materials used in textile production. Strong winds and frigid temperatures were enemies to the firefighters, which burned throughout the night.

Polartec fabric was produced at Malden Mills, then a major Merrimack Valley employer. Owner Aaron Feuerstein, known for his commitment to families and the community, vowed to rebuild the company and continued paying workers during reconstruction - a move that won him national praise.

Feuerstein spent $25 million keeping his employees on the payroll. But by 2001, the costs of financing reconstruction forced him into bankruptcy.

Come Jan. 21, 2008, a seven-alarm fire ravaged an entire city block, destroying 14 buildings, including a nightclub, several Habitat for Humanity Homes under construction, an apartment building and a general store. Buildings on Parker, Market and Springfield streets were either damaged or destroyed.

Miraculously, no one was injured in the blaze that ripped through the block that frigid morning. Still, 180 people living in 26 apartments fled to the streets in their pajamas, bathrobes and blankets and lost everything. Damage was assessed at $4 million.

Fire investigators determined the fire broke out in the former nightclub property at 44 Parker St. Space heaters were used in the nightclub without a permit three days before the fire. However, due to the severity of the damage, the exact cause of the blaze was never determined.

Today, the entire city block has been rebuilt.

Last night’s 6-alarm fire at the Merrimack Paper Co. was not the first at the 140-year-old structure. On Nov. 6, 2009, a three-alarm blaze broke out at the then-vacant mill.

The building was gutted inside and at one time under a city-ordered fire watch. No firefighting efforts occurred inside the building last night.

“The thing was roaring when we pulled up,” Firefighter Raymond Kenyon said last night.

Perhaps the most historic mill fire happened in 1860. The Pemberton Mill collapsed without warning on Jan. 10 of that year and caught fire when a rescue worker’s oil lantern was accidentally knocked over. Flames raced across the cotton waste and splintered wood , some of it soaked with oil. An estimated 145 workers were killed and 166 injured in what was called “one of the worst industrial calamities in American history.”

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.