3 Dead and 7 Critically Injured —Fire Sweeps Rapidly Through Building, Supposedly Fireproof

EVEN when fire broke out on June 19 in the four-story Roger Williams Manor, a 54-apartment structure in Cranston. R. I., the occupants were not overly alarmed. Each was secure in the belief that the building was fireproof.

But the fire which broke out at 5 a.m., spread rapidly and demonstrated that the structure never had a reasonable claim to the term “Slow-burning construction.” Flames spread rapidly—very rapidly, and when the first fire companies arrived, flames were shooting out from nearly all the windows.

Ruins of the Roger Williams Manor in Cranston, R. I.

Photo by Charles L. Booth

Occupants became excited. Many held on as long as they could and then jumped. Three persons lost their lives and seven were critically injured, some suffering from fractured spines.

The following description by Lieutenant Baird, in a report to the state police, gives an official account. He stated:

  1. The fire occurred at 5:43 a. m. on the morning of .June 18, 1939. Three people lost their lives, and seven persons, all tenants of the building, were injured. A total of thirty-four persons, embracing Cranston Fire Department officers, the original owner and builder of the building, the building architect, representatives of the present owners, the superintendent and occupants of the building, were interviewed by the Inquest Hoard, and their statements are on file at State Police Headquarters.
  2. Cause: The complete destruction of the building rendered it impossible to conclusively ascertain the cause of the fire. The seat of the fire, on first observation, indicated it first broke out in the vicinity of the third and fourth floors, in the northeast corner of the north wing. There is no evidence of incendiarism.
  3. Evidence showed that the fire traveled very rapidly, after discovery, and that it had gained considerable headway before discovery.
  4. The first notification to the Cranston Fire Department was by still alarm, and but two pieces of apparatus responded. A lapse of seven minutes occurred between the sending of the still alarm and the sounding of a general alarm. the first notification had been a general alarm, it is probable that all available Cranston Fire Department apparatus would have responded. The delay in producing man-power and equipment at the scene was vital to the chances of trapped tenants. There is evidence to show that the units of the Cranston Fire Department responding to the alarm were insufficiently equipped in man-power and equipment to cope with a fire of this nature in this type of building. The Fire Department did the best that it could under the circumstances.
  5. It was conclusively indicated by the testimony that this building was of a construction which must be judged grossly inadequate as regards fire safeguards in structures used for like purposes. It is established that the material used for construction of partition walls, corridor walls and passageways leading to so-called fire towers, was not of a fireproof nature. Also, the stairways in fire towers were not of fireproof material. If the corridors and passageways were of fireproof materials, it is possible that many of the occupants could have escaped through regular exits, but, due to this type of construction. the incidental heavy volume of smoke made egress along passageways practically impossible.
  6. There is testimony to the effect that many of the tenants were under the impression that this building was a fireproof structure, and several of the tenants interviewed asserted that the superintendent of the building implanted this impression when they were negotiating for occupancy of apartments.
  7. The testimony also shows that if there had been a method of sounding a general alarm throughout the building to notify tenants of fire, it Is possible that such an alarm would have provided sufficient time in this instance to allow escape. The testimony indicates that the great majority of tenants were first warned of the fire by the screaming of those who were trapped. (Most of the occupants were asleep when the fire was discovered.)

“The Stale law pertaining to buildings of this type is not specific, It leaves safety requirements up to the judgment of local Inspectors of Building.

“The inquest reveals no violation of State law.

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