WOONSOCKET — The rising column of black smoke over Fairmount Street Tuesday evening told a well known story for city residents. Another of the city's historic mills was burning.
The column of roiling smoke led to the old U.S. Rubber Co. plant at 85 Fairmount St., more recently known as Tech Industries, and flames were quickly destroying the four-story brick and wood structure.
The fire initially erupted out third and fourth-floor windows near one of the mill's two distinctive bell towers around 7:45 p.m. and quickly spread across the affected floors.
Flames proceeded to pour through most of the windows on the upper floors of the structure originally built as a textile plant in the 1890s.
City firefighters rushed to put lines on the building from the front parking lot off Fairmount Street but it appeared those efforts would be futile as several loud explosions sounded from deep inside the old mill and a some type of compressed gas tank released its contents in with prolonged hissing sound.
Soon, the entire front of the mill gushed orange plumes of flame and the black ugly cloud above blocked out the perfectly blue early evening sky.
A burst of sparks from nearby power lines signaled the start of a power outage in the area that was through much of Main Street well into the night.
City fighters were joined by all the area's surrounding departments as the fight against the fire became one to contain its spread to the surrounding multi-family properties and nearby industrial buildings.
As the flames consumed the bell towers at about 8:50 p.m., a city fire company working near a ladder tower hose in the front parking lot called for a rescue after a firefighter went down. The rescue crew carried the overcome firefighter away on a stretcher while administering an IV bag of fluids.
Woonsocket Fire Chief Gary Lataille later said the firefighter was transported to the hospital but did not know the firefighter's condition at that point.
None of the estimated 100 firefighters on scene was able to fight the fire from inside the mill due to the extreme fire load, Lataille said.
Luckily there was hardly any wind and the flames were largely being contained within the walls of the mill, he said.
"At this point we are just trying to maintain the perimeter we have and keep the fire in the structure," Lataille said at the scene. There were reports of some embers falling across the nearby Blackstone to the opposite shore and sparking some small brush fires off River Street. There were no reports of fire spreading to other structures but responding fire companies could be seen checking the surrounding neighborhoods for any problems and setting up additional lines to be used if needed.
Lataille said he did not yet have any information on the cause of the fire or what may have caused the explosions heard early on in the fire. State and local fire investigators, city police detectives and State Police were all at the scene while the fire was under way.
Bellingham Fire Chief Richard F. Ranieri and Blackstone Fire Chief Michael Sweeney directed firefighters from their communities in controlling flames from the side of the mill near the intersection of Fairmount and River Street. The fire illuminated the scene in an orange glow highlighted with bright flashes as parts of the building's walls collapsed inward and sent flames and sparks roiling skyward.
Firefighters from North Smithfield, Cumberland and Burrillville could also be seen setting up points of support to control the blaze. The fire could be seen from all points of the city and drew crowds of spectators to roads blocked off by police. Lataille said the fire was being monitored as to its impact on air quality and surrounding neighborhoods and evacuations ordered if that were deemed necessary at any point.
Paul R. Mathias, the owner of a nearby mill building at 84 Fairmount St., the former Jules Desurmont Worsted Co., said he received several phone calls about the fire around 7:30 p.m. and rushed the scene thinking his property was affected.
"It was overwhelming," Mathias said of coming upon the building structure.