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On December 13, 1977, a fire started on the fourth floor of a women's dormitory, Aquinas Hall, at Providence College in Rhode Island. Within 30 minutes ten young women were dead. According to the NFPA, two of the ten student fatalities died from injuries received when they jumped out a window, four died of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation, and four died as a direct result of burns. Twelve students and one firefighter were injured.
Long-time Firegeezer reader and occasional contributor, Mark Donovan was a student at PC at the time and was witness to the activities and the area of destruction. He has written this recollection to share with us his experience. This is the conclusion of a two-part article. Read Part One HERE..
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PROVIDENCE COLLEGE DORM FIRE: 35 YEARS AGO
by Mark Donovan
In the morning Sully's shift came on duty and I knew he would come to the scene to relieve the D shift BC. Sure enough, shortly after the sun came up, I saw Car 23 drive up and walked over. It was a somber reunion; we all had cried that morning. He put on his gear, his well-worn turnout coat and dirty helmet; Sully was a firefighter's firefighter, no fireground commander alone… he worked, "I won't ask any of my men to do what I wouldn't do" was kind of like a pledge he lived by.
He once told me about a fire at a nursing home on the east side. It was in the sub-basement laundry, and the first due company just couldn't knock it down, despite repeated advances. They had banged the second quickly due to obvious life-safety issues. Finally, calling upon the memory of his deputy chief dad, he looked at all the firefighters who had amassed as a result of the second alarm and said, "We're going to put this M/F fire out… Who has the balls to join me?" And of course, he/they did.
So here, at Aquinas, that somber morning, Sully looked over at me and said, very matter-of-factly, as if he owed it to me, "You ready to go up?" Silently I nodded yes and off he and I went, Billy leading the way with the light of the rechargeable wheat lamp bouncing off the snow.
Aquinas Hall (new wing)
I had been no stranger to Aquinas Hall over the past year and a half. It was a very impressive building, ornate in its architecture, as many on the campus then were. Built in 1938, it was a U-shaped building of mixed construction. Classrooms/lecture hall on the first floor, dorm rooms on second, third and fourth. There were three enclosed stairways. Dead-end corridors of about 60' long at each end. Room doors were non-closing, wood composite; many of them had air-transfer grills approximately five feet from the floor.
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The transfer grills were made of combustible pressed board with holes in it, similar to what you see tools hanging from in a workshop or hardware store. The fire alarm system consisted of manual pull stations, three heat detectors and interior alarm horns. There were no smoke detectors or automatic sprinklers.
We ascended the interior center stairwell, which, to say it was tight, is no exaggeration. In turnout gear it was one thing, however, for two students, say one ascending and one descending, each had to each turn their body to get by the other. If you were claustrophobic, you didn't want to use those stairs. You could, rather, have chosen to use the elevator… no bigger than an old stand-alone phone booth, it had a cage door that opened accordian style. Frankly, I'm sure that everyone using it just crossed their fingers that it would take them to their desired floor. I know I did when I was invited to visit a girl.
We climbed to the fourth floor and my first impression was simply overwhelming.
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The only way to describe the hallway was total combustion. A seasonal competition had been held for the past few years for "Best Decorated Room and Corridor" and the women of Fourth Floor Aquinas readily accepted the challenge. The hallway had been entirely covered, ceiling to floor, with crepe paper. What were once bulletin boards covered in cards, artwork and such were now simply empty frames hanging on the wall. The stench of death (which I would come to know several times again running with Providence) hung in the air as we entered the room of origin and several adjoining rooms. Sully was very matter-of-fact… pointing things out to me as if it were his duty. I really loved him for taking me under his wing. Billy always nodded… he was a good chief's suck.
In one room, it appeared a parachute or some type of large fabric had been hung from the ceiling, barely anything left. What hadn't combusted had melted or just shriveled to nothing.
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With the arrival of the first snow, a gathering of students had amassed in the "quad" formed by McDermott, McVinney and Aquinas Halls. Soon a snowball fight erupted among the 100, lasting, off and on, about an hour… ah, the innocence of youth. Finally, students returned to their rooms to dry out and retire for the night, including some from Aquinas Four.
SOURCE OF ORIGIN
Due to the total combustion, a definite source of the fire was never determined. There are, however, two theories. The first is that a hair dryer was turned on, in a closet, to dry out wet mittens, in room 406. The second is that a gooseneck lamp outside room 406 was used to illuminate a manger scene. In either case, ignition occurred. There would have been a loud WHOOSH as the fire ignited the sea of combustibles, making it a tunnel of flame… in today’s terms, a flashover. The superheated smoke then began to bank down from the ceiling and entered every room through these particle board air transfer grills. There were mixed reports of whether or not the fire alarm system had been activated. Death inside was a result of smoke inhalation and burns.
As I noted earlier, Engine 12 and Ladder 3's house is less than 1/2 mile from the PC campus. The photographs here and the total combustion that I witnessed testify to the ferocity of this fire, some thirty-five years ago, to this day.
ONE YEAR LATER: PC VS. ME
One year later, it was true that Providence College had made some very apparent efforts to improve fire safety on campus. To me, however, they had not done enough. In an on-camera interview with WPRI, the local television station, I stated that fact. The very next day, I was summoned to the Office of College President Thomas R. Peterson, O.P. (1971-1985), who literally screamed at me at the top of his lungs for what I had said during that interview. As a result, I wondered if I would, in fact, graduate from PC. I had never known a man of the cloth could be so cruel. Alas, when I later descended the stage at graduation, I quickly sneeked a peek inside the diploma sleeve, and there it was. I had graduated PC.
RESULTS FROM THE FIRE – NATIONALLY
Never had there been such a loss of life in the state of Rhode Island. The Aquinas fire is only eclipsed by the 100 who perished at The Station nightclub fire (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Station_nightclub_fire) in February, 2003, the fourth deadliest night club fire in U.S. history.
The fire in Aquinas changed fire codes not only in the state of Rhode Island, but across the country. As a result of the fire, PC eliminated dead-end corridors and all residence halls are now heat-sensored and sprinklered. Aquinas was not required to meet current code, as it was "grandfathered." After the fire, PC spent a total of $4 million on dormitory fire safety improvements. The following Spring, huge egress stairwells were added to each end of Aquinas Hall.
Aquinas Hall today. Note exterior fire towers.
(Google Earth View)
In looking at a Google Maps aerial image today, two huge "wings" have been added to Aquinas, substantially increasing the size of the dormitory. Each wing, as well as a new stairway behind the building, features an exit stairwell. The parking lot, as seen in the Google image, where student vehicles restricted emergency vehicle apparatus, has been returned to grass and trees.
Following the Aquinas Hall fire, several of the Providence firefighters who had responded took retirement.
There is little doubt in my mind how significantly the Aquinas Hall fire affected me. I went on to become an EMT, volunteered at North Providence FD (and later several others), worked for a police department, combated the kerosene heater industry for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, and worked for several non-profit trade associations. I've ridden apparatus all over the country and even bunked down for a weekend at Chelsea Station with the London Fire Brigade! Today I remain in the fire service, employed by a company that manufactures fire hose. I visit firehouses wherever I travel and love attending FDIC in Indianapolis each year.
How the fire and EMS service has changed over the past 35 years… But the brotherhood and camaraderie remain, stronger than ever. I also continue as a freelance photographer for several area newpapers and digitally, I contribute to Firegeezer.
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Also on FireGeezer…
- Famous Dormitory Fire Recalled 35 Years Later – December 18, 2012