Rubber Fire at Fall River Causes $12,000,000 Loss
Fifty-Two Neighboring Cities Aid in Controlling Blaze
A TWO-STATE alarm fire late Saturday night, October 11. destroyed five out of eight buildings of the Firestone Rubber and Latex plant in Fall River Mass. The loss was unofficially estimated at $12,000,000 making this blaze the largest in the history of Fall River. This estimate would be conservative if stores of rubber at the plant are as large as believed and if destruction of these stores was complete. Federal Loan Agency at Washington alone lost 15,850 tons of rubber at the fire, and this represents ten per cent of the stock on hand of that agency. The plant was engaged in making self-sealing fuel and oil tanks for aeroplanes, pilot seats, ammunition belts for machine guns, barrage balloons, gas masks and many other items vital to the nation’s defense.
Blaze Starts in Cushion Dryer
The fire, starting in a cushion dryer on the third floor of the foamed latex dept., known as building number 5, spread quickly out of control. The flames had a head start of about 15 minutes, due to the jamming of an 85 foot aerial in one of the small alleyways of the plant, also holding up the first three engine companies due on the first alarm. By the time the building had been evacuated of its many workers, the flames had enveloped the building from end to end and were reaching out menacingly toward nearby buildings. When delayed firemen arrived, a second alarm was sounded registering at fire headquarters at 10:59 P.M. At 11 :06 a third was sent and twenty minutes later a general alarm, bringing all available apparatus to the scene. Shortly after the general alarm was sounded a hurry call went out to all surrounding cities and towns for aid. Firemen from more than fifty-two cities and towns in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including cities as far distant as Boston and Worcester, fought the fire after answering the appeal. Some departments responded voluntarily as their men saw the flare of giant flames and the jet-black smoke that trailed for twenty-five miles.
Massachusetts cities and towns that sent apparatus to Fall River included Boston, Worcester. New Bedford, Fairhaven, Brockton, Milton. Stoughton, Abington, Whitman, Hanson, Norwood, Plymouth, Millis. Walpole, Mansfield, Foxboro, Rockland, Swansea, Attleboro, North Attleboro, Seekonk, Dartmouth, Assonet, Westport, Weymouth, Dedham, Bourne, Marion, Hyannis, Raynham, Middleboro, Easton, Bridgewater, Somerset and Taunton.
Representing Rhode Island were Providence, East Providence, Quonset Point, Newport Naval Training Station, Greenwood, North Scituate, Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Warren, Bristol, Warwick, Lakewood, Newport, Riverside, Barrington, Westerly and Kingston.
Explosions Shake Buildings
Great explosions shook the first building and blew flames across a small areaway and engulfed a second building. Explosions continued from time to time and with each of the bursts a shower of sparks was scattered over the roofs of buildings within a two block area. Sparks landed on the roof of the Fyans Mill Machinery Company, and were extinguished time after time, but finally an ember landed at a vital spot and burned the building to ruins. As the roof and walls of buildings numbers 4 and 5 started to collapse, they sent more sparks up into the air which were picked up by the wind and carried to start trouble anew. Shortly after the Fyan Company ignited the roof of the Lamport Company, one of the world’s largest distributors of cotton, caught fire, followed soon after by the roof of the Delco Building Co.
Embers Ignite Autos
Showering embers also set fire to the two and a half story wooden building occupied by Israel Cohen, used automobile parts dealer, who had about 100 cars on the property. The building and eighty cars were burned to the accompaniment of repeated explosions as gasoline tanks let go.
A building of the Old Colony Machine Works was destroyed and two buildings of W. C. Atwater and Company, fuel dealers and oil burner manufacturers were badly damaged. Fire attacked large coke supplies of the Fall River Gas Works Company, but most of the fuel was saved.
Several other buildings were fired but the flames were quickly brought under control. The police seeing the danger evacuated the families from nearby tenements. Fire companies who answered ball River’s plea were put to work performing duties similar to those of fire wardens in London, snuffing out incipient fires in an area a mile around the doomed plant.
Meanwhile, inside the plant, the fire was still defying all efforts. The firemen had waged a losing battle against buildings 4 and 5 and had now retreated to concentrate their efforts on a building known as the Tower building, which held large stores of rubber.
Firemen from Fall River and Tiverton threw up a heavy water curtain around the Tower building and at one time it appeared they were going to be able to gain control of the flames, but were foiled when a large tank of naphtha became ignited. The added fuel sent a column of flame into the air that was visible for miles around. About this time hundreds of cars began blocking all of the incoming streets so that aiding fire companies were delayed or prevented from reaching the scene. Massachusetts State Guard was summoned and soon had the area well guarded and the police were free to reroute traffic.
Gas Tank Threatened
In the direct path of the flames was a storage tank containing 750,000 cubic feet of illuminating gas belonging to the Fall River Gas Co. The manufacturing superintendent and the company chemist climbed to the top of the tank, and seeing the advancing flames and realizing the danger of an explosion and hazard to the city, directed workmen in drawing off the contents and transferring the gas by pipes to another tank. They also kept the tank wetted down which extinguished the embers as soon as they landed.
By morning, five buildings were nothing more than smoking ruins and huge clouds of smoke billowed skyward. In the early morning, the front wall of the Tower building collapsed, injuring a crew of firemen from Attleboro, Brockton, and Fall River; ten in all were injured.
The wall, of foot-thick stone structure that had stood for seventy-odd years, was unsupported, the roof having gone hours before. Terrific heat had warped it visibly out of line. Suddenly it gave, bending slowly from the top. and then fell, showering the men working below with granite blocks ranging from pebbles to thirty-pound chunks.
The Fall River firemen were under the direction of Deputy Chief William Carberry, as Chief Geo. A. McGaw was away on a weekend leave.
Firestone officials, FBI men and Army Intelligence personnel arrived at the scene to open a joint investigation, to determine whether the blaze was of incendiary origin. The investigation has since been closed and the possibility of sabotage discounted.
The first of the sixtv-five pieces of apparatus that had battled the flames did not leave the scene until late Sunday afternoon and other aiding companies left the scene but were returned to Fall River Station to cover the city.