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Mill catches fire from exploding transformer

June 6, 2011

PAWTUCKET — A fire that erupted from an exploding electrical transformer caused damage to a historic mill complex at 560 Mineral Spring Ave. that houses over 100 business tenants late Monday morning.
According to Pawtucket Fire Chief William Sisson, the fire broke out at around 11:30 a.m. when the transformer, which was in the process of being repaired by National Grid workers, exploded after the electrical power was in the process of being restored. A blaze that was fed by the contents of the transformer leaped up the side of one of the brick stair towers and then ignited some wooden window frames and the roof of one portion of the 325,000-square-foot building.
Sisson said that firefighters were able to bring the blaze under control quickly and damage was contained to a stair tower and one section of the mill's roof. Firefighters had to break through portions of the roof to make sure the flames were fully extinguished. The power to the front section of the mill complex was expected to be out for a day or two, but he said the rest of the tenants would be allowed to return. No injuries were reported to any firefighters or the National Grid employees who had been working in a bucket truck at the transformer site.
The pole with the faulty transformer was located directly outside the windows of the Colonial Mills (CMI) rug company, which occupies three floors of the complex. CMI president and chief operating officer Don Scarlata, watching the firefighters from across the street, said there had been a problem with the electricity to the building since about 8 a.m. Workers from National Grid, using bucket trucks, were working on one of three transformers at the top of a utility pole and had shut the power off during the repairs. Apparently, when they attempted to turn the power back on, the explosion occurred.
“I was sitting in my office and I heard a loud 'boom' and there was suddenly a wall of flames at the window,” Scarlata said. Because the fire occurred outside, he said he pulled the interior fire alarms himself in order to notify the fire department and the other tenants. He added that he was surprised no National Grid workers were injured in the incident as they had been so close to the point of the explosion.
Scarlata said he sent his 85 employees home and was hopeful that there had not been any damage to his rug inventory. He said that because no interior sprinklers had gone off, he was not anticipating any problems along those lines. However, he said the loss of power to the company's machines, computer, and phone lines would be the biggest obstacles to resuming business.
Jon Savage, the owner of the 140-year-old mill complex, said the building is fully occupied and houses 125 tenants, ranging from companies doing light manufacturing to professional artists, architects, an art gallery and other small businesses. He said that all of the damage appeared to be confined to a stair tower and the roof of a portion of the mill building.
“The Pawtucket Fire Department did an extraordinarily great job,” Savage said. “The building has all state-of-the-art fire alarms and as soon as the first alarm went in, they were right here. I expect all of the tenants to be back in within a day or so.”
Michael Rich, a painter whose studio and office is on the top floor of the mill, said the utility pole with the transformers was located just outside of his window. “I was working in space on the other side of the room when I suddenly heard an explosion. The glass blew out of the window and I saw flames,” he said. “I grabbed my phone and my wallet and ran outside.”
As the fire had spread to the portion of the roof directly over his studio, he said he was anxious to get back inside and see if there was any smoke or water damage to his paintings. “I have hundreds of thousands of dollars of artwork up there,” he said, worriedly.
Fire Capt. Steven Parent, the city's fire marshal, said the inspectors are looking into the electrical service feed to the building in trying to determine the actual cause of the blaze. He that in addition to wooden window frames in the stair tower that burned and a portion of the roof, a cell phone system that had been located in the top floor of the stair tower was destroyed in the blaze.
Parent said later on Monday that he expected it would be at least a couple of days before electrical service could be restored to the affected sections of the mill complex.

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