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.
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.
Traffic was disrupted for about a half mile around the property as police closed the bridge over the South Canal at Parker Street/Route 114 in South Lawrence and also closed South Canal Street on both sides of the fire.
From the building’s flanks, firefighters worked furiously to contain the fire to the main mill building and were able to save the adjoining warehouse to the east by pouring enough water onto its roof that the water cascaded through the seams of the concrete building.
A brick smokestack between the mill and the river on the north also was spared.
But lost forever last night was another red-brick link to the city’s industrial might and any hope of preserving the mill, which produced high-quality paper for clients that included National Geographic magazine since it opened at the height of the city’s industrial might in 1886 until it was sold in 2005.
“Any mill brick structure like this has to have some historic value, but after an event like this, any historic value has to be lost,” said Mayor Daniel Rivera, who came to the fire with his chief of staff, Lisa Torrisi. “Right now, all we’re concerned with is safety, that the fire doesn’t spread and that all firefighters are safe. They’ll probably be at it all night.”
“It’s a shame to lose one of Lawrence’s 19th-century industrial buildings,” said Jonas Stundza, chairman of the city’s Historical Commission. “It’s irreplaceable.”