Mill fire whipped by wind; 13 homes damaged in Rhode Island

Sunday, November 16, 2003

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- Hundreds of residents fled their homes as a wind-propelled fire tore through an old mill complex and burning embers spread the blaze to 13 homes.

The wind, gusting up to 45 mph at times, hampered firefighters' efforts against the blaze, which broke out at the former Greenhalgh Mills complex Friday afternoon. Saturday morning, firefighters were still putting out hot spots.

The wind made it all but impossible to determine what path the fire would take in the surrounding neighborhood of densely packed homes and businesses, acting fire chief Richard Renzi said.

"Instead of burning up, it was burning across," Renzi said. Fire spread to homes up to five blocks away from the mill, while leaving an elementary school and other structures closer to the mill unscathed.

About 17 firefighters suffered smoke inhalation or minor injuries, and a total of 24 people were evaluated at nearby hospitals. Mayor James Doyle said no one was seriously hurt.

Investigators searched the mill site Saturday for clues as to how the fire started.

Seven houses destroyed

Fire officials did not know whether there were any hazardous chemicals at the mill, which produced acetate, a silky fabric used in linings for coats and dresses. The complex was set to be demolished to make way for a shopping mall.

Seven houses were destroyed by the fire, and six others were damaged, city officials said Saturday. Police and fire officials said they planned to cordon off the fire scene and look for videotape of the fire to use in the investigation.

Thousands in town lost power, and as many as 200 people were evacuated from the neighborhood. Students from an elementary school a block away covered their noses and mouths against the smoke as they left school.

Around the block from the old mill, Jean Langborg, 53, had tossed her crutches aside and was busily sweeping leaves away from her house with a broom.

"I just got through a divorce, and I'm trying to keep the house, and I'm not about to lose it to a fire," she said as embers floated around her.

Thick smoke billowed from the complex for hours as firefighters fought the blaze through the howling wind. Fire Capt. Barry Phillips said there was zero-visibility on the front lines.

"There was fire, water and smoke all around us," he said. "Burning embers were hitting us in the face."

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