LAWRENCE — Fire roared through a part of the abandoned Merrimac Paper Co. complex on South Canal Street last night, illuminating the southern bank of the Merrimack River with an orange glow that burned late into the night.
The blaze was first reported shortly before 7 p.m. and quickly escalated to three alarms. The odors of smoke and the soot hung in the air and carried for a distance, grabbing the attention of football fans watching a game more than a mile away at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Firefighters from area towns helped battle the blaze. The 200,000-square-foot building is boarded up and was condemned several years ago.
But fire officials worried that the 140-year-old structure, at the end of the canal near the intersection of Merrimack Street and South Broadway, might be a death trap for homeless people who are known to inhabit vacant buildings along the river.
Lawrence Fire Chief Peter Takvorian said a quick search was conducted near the access points of the building after receiving initial reports of homeless people being inside.
But firefighters did not go into the heart of the building, primarily because of concerns the roof would collapse. The roof finally caved in with an explosion-like sound shortly after 9 p.m.
"We will not go in and check the weakened back of the structure," Chief Takvorian said, as he looked at fire jetting through the roof.
"It's too hazardous to put my people in this structure. Our strategy right now is stay on the exterior, surround and drown it."
Takvorian said it was too early to determine the cause of the blaze, but arson investigators were at the scene.
The Lawrence Fire Department used an 85-foot snorkel truck and ladder trucks, spraying water onto the roof on the former shipping and receiving building that housed truck dock #1.