LAWRENCE — A spectacular fire of unknown origin destroyed what remained of a 19th-century paper mill on the south shore of the Merrimack River last night, collapsing the building’s roof, shooting flames and sparks 30 feet through the opening and sending a fog of smoke and ash across the river to downtown.
None of the 70 or so firefighters who responded from eight departments as far as Lowell and Wilmington was injured by the time the fire was contained at 6:30 p.m., about two hours after it was reported at the former Merrimac Paper Company at 9 S. Canal St.
The fire was the second to do major damage at the plant in four years and occurred despite an order from the city to the owner to post guards on the site. A developer who owed $4 million in unpaid taxes sold the mill to a former Lawrence cop for a dollar three years ago in what officials described as an effort to dodge the tax bill. The debt made the developer and then the former cop the city’s top tax scofflaws at the time.
The former cop, David Padellaro, who was fired from the police force for misconduct in 1998, was at the fire last night and provided firefighters with floor plans to the building.
Acting Chief John Marsh — who took command of the Lawrence Fire Department just 13 days ago — said the fire’s cause was unknown and arson investigators would be on the property today. He said the first firefighter to arrive radioed back a report that there may have been someone on the roof, but no one was found.
Marsh also said he did not believe homeless people were living in the mill, although employees at R. C. Auto Detailing on Merrimack Street across the South Canal said they regularly saw them inside. Marsh noted that electricity to the mill was shut years ago, increasing the likelihood that the fire may have been set deliberately or by accident.