PAWTUCKET — The cause of the massive Union Wadding Company mill fire has been determined to be arson, and fire officials are turning to the public for help in finding the person or persons who lit the match.
At a press conference held at the Pawtucket Fire Department headquarters on Thursday, State Fire Marshal Jack Chartier said that the results of the sweeping investigation by federal, state and local fire officials revealed “multiple points of origin within the building” for the blaze that destroyed over half of the 450,000-square-foot structure. As such, he said fire officials are looking for the support of the public “in finding the perpetrators of this event.”
Chartier said that the State Fire Marshal's Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives are jointly offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the culprits. “We believe someone out there knows who did this,” he stated. Signs announcing the reward will be posted at the Union Wadding mill site and at various other locations throughout the city.
Anyone with information is asked to call the 24-hour phone line at: 401-462-4242. Chartier stressed that all information will be kept completely confidential and that all comments and identities can remain anonymous if the caller so chooses.
The state Fire Marshal's Office is offering $5,000 in reward money and the federal ATF is matching that amount as part of its ArsonWatch reward program. “We're hoping that this spurs the public to help,” Chartier stated. “We view this as a very serious and violent crime, and we will be following up on every lead.”
Guy N. Thomas, special agent in charge of the federal ATF's Boston Field Division, said that while there were no injuries involved in the seven-alarm blaze, the act of arson is still considered to be a violent crime. He said that while it was fortunate that no firefighters were injured and the mill was unoccupied, a large-scale fire such as this puts firefighters and police in danger while also creating an economic loss to the community.
Fire Chief William Sisson noted that some 200 firefighters from eight different communities had responded to the late-night blaze, which took several days to completely extinguish. He said the fact that there were no injuries was testament to the “total group effort” that went in to handling the incident.
Pawtucket Mayor James E. Doyle said he wanted to publicly say “thank you” to the Pawtucket firefighters and all of the fire personnel who came from other communities to help, as well as the AFT agents—some of whom had traveled from as far away as Texas and Wyoming. He cited the valuable expertise that the AFT agents provided and said that without their assistance “we never would be able to conduct the research necessary.” The mayor added that this was only the second time that the city had called in the ATF, the first being the Greenhalgh Mills fire from several years back.
In response to questions from the media, Chartier said there is still an “active investigation” into the fire and as such, he could not release any information about any accelerant or other details. He added that no criminal charges have been filed against anyone to date.
Sisson said at the press conference that he had heard of one previous complaint about people being in the building, but there was no evidence that anyone had been living in the mill. He said the 19th century brick building, which once produced Christmas decorations and other items, had been basically emptied of its contents prior to the fire. He estimated the cost of the damage to be at $2 to $2.5 million.
Pawtucket Police Major Arthur Martins later told the TIMES that police had no formal complaints on record of anyone being inside the mill.
In reply to a question from a reporter, Sisson said he could not comment on any insurance that might have been on the building, citing the ongoing investigation. He did say that the property owners, Garfield and Rebecca Spencer of First National Development, LLC, had been “cooperative” with authorities throughout the investigation.
Sisson also said that the Pawtucket Police as well as the city and state Fire Marshals offices, along with special agents from the AFT's Providence and Boston offices, would continue to be involved in the investigation. Besides sifting through fire evidence, he said this also includes digging into the mill's ownership and all financial aspects surrounding the property.
The Union Wadding redevelopment project, condominiums and later apartment units which were to be completed in phases, had been in financial trouble for the past few years. The main mill complex was in arrears to the city for almost $300,000 in unpaid property taxes and fines, and had been scheduled for tax sale on November 10. A previous tax auction on the property had been scheduled in the summer of 2009 but was later canceled after an agreement was reached between First National Development and its lender, Rockland Trust.
Attempts to reach anyone from the Connecticut-based First National Development for a comment were unsuccessful.