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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 a two-part article and will conclude tomorrow.
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PROVIDENCE COLLEGE DORM FIRE: 35 YEARS AGO
by Mark Donovan
It started as had most early Winter nites there on PC's campus, albeit a nice touch of snow, the season's first on that December 12th, 1977. A 19 year-old sophomore, I had spent some time studying in the library, and then headed back to my single room in Dore Hall, a dorm on the "lower campus" (which had once been home to a mental institution), to continue. Finals were coming up and then Christmas break, which everyone was looking forward to.
The fire radio, ever on, blared call after call, incessant chatter that I had gotten used to. I had a bullhorn speaker mounted at the top of the headboard, which fed me the action all nite long. It was amazing I ever got any sleep!
This particular night I was roused out of a deep sleep by three firm blows on the door. From their intensity, I knew whoever was doing it, was pissed. WAKE UP! R.A. (resident assistant) OPEN THE DOOR, NOW! I looked at the clock and it was after 3 a.m. WTF, I thought, as I got up and opened the door. There he towered, clipboard in hand, "DID YOU HAVE ANY GIRLS IN HERE TONITE???" Clearly shocked (a good Catholic boy like me?), I rattled off NO, and just like that he was off to repeat it to the next room. Before I had a second to think, the fire radio blared, "Car 23 to Car 25 (whom I knew to be the arson investigator), meet me in front of Aquinas Hall." WHOA, that woke me up, I dressed in a flash and off I flew, Aquinas being just across Huxley Ave.
There is a long history of firefighting in my family. As a child, my maternal grandfather was a lieutenant, Engine 4, in Waterbury, CT. My paternal grandparents lived in Lowell, MA, and when, as grandchildren, we weren't going to Fenway Stadium to meet Pop's friends, the DiMaggios, we went to the Elks Club, where he played a strange card game called PEE NUCKLE. Then of course, there was the local ice cream parlor down Stevens St., Brunnell's. The old fashioned kind, with stools, real milk shakes and 24 flavors of hard ice cream! So, often right after dinner we'd head down to Brunnell's for dessert. Although I loved ice cream, the best part of that trek was a visit across the street to Engine 4, an open cab American Lafrance. One time I got so excited that I left my pal, Ted E. Bear, in the front seat of the rig, which wasn't discovered till bedtime. I was upset, but assuaged that first thing in the morning, we'd go get him. And we did, and boy did he have a story to tell. They had caught a worker that nite and Ted E. had taken it in, too!
My older brother and I used to spend two weeks each year with the grandparents, going to Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire, playing with cousins, the usual. But the most fun I would have would be when my grandmother would come into the den, where Pop was smoking his ever present cigar and say, "Stevie Callahan's on the phone." I knew Stevie was a big fire buff, and in a few moments, Pop would walk down to the den and say, "The (something) Mill is burning. Want to go to a fire?" YEA! and off we went. My grandfather worked for the newspaper, so he knew his way around downtown. Whenever we'd see a police car blocking the road, he'd say, "Ok, we're not going that way!" Before long the air was acrid with the lovely smell of smoke and my goodness if he hadn't gotten us behind the police line, sometimes well behind them! Where, for the next couple of hours we would take in the battle, he pointing out to me how the fire was spreading, and "Watch that roof, it's going to fall pretty soon." And that it did. He passed while I had moved on to high school.
During high school I joined a private fire department in Hopeville, CT, under a foul-mouthed, beer-swilling, cheap and wonderful Irish fire chief by the name of Joe (Fitzy) FitzPatrick. Joe was a huge buff, having worked for the Fire Insurance Corps of New York and also ran the FDNY supply store (where the fridge was always stocked with beer!). He introduced me (and many others) to the FDNY. I rode with Engine 82/Ladder 31 of da Bronx (long before Dennis Smith's book came out), Engine 232/Ladder 176 and Engine 202/Ladder 101 in Red Hook, both Brooklyn houses. I was seeing lots of fire and having lots of fun, marching in fire parades throughout the state of Connecticut and New England. I even drank some beer (now and then)! And then came college.
Being raised Catholic, my older brother now attending St. Bonaventure University, my younger brother destined for the priesthood (and to be the only Firefighter 2 certified priest in CT now!), I looked at a number of schools and narrowed it down to PC and St. Anselm's in Manchester, NH. Frankly, I don't remember touring St. Anselm's. What I do remember is my father missing the exit for PC off 95, so we were to take the next one, for downtown. We got off the exit ramp and I had an ephipany. There, to my right, was Providence Fire Headquarters and parked on the ramp were Engine 1, Engine 3 and Ladder 1, all gorgeous Macks. At that moment I made my decision, I'm going to Providence College!
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