First Arriving Network
First Arriving Network

Famous Dormitory Fire Recalled 35 Years Later

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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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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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I fell in love with Providence and especially the fire department. I purposely scheduled my classes to be Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesday and Friday nites, and Saturday days and nite and Sunday days, I'd spend in a fire station. The house closest to PC was Engine 12 and Ladder 3, who weren't the city's busiest, but they ran to PC on all boxes and caught some "Code Reds" in their first due district. Which, me on my ten-speed bike, was always MY first due district, too. As soon as I heard, "Engine 12, Code Red!" I was off on the bike to take it in. One of the four chiefs of the battalion, Car 23, Robert "Sully" Sullivan (a typical Irish firefighter whom had followed in his PFD deputy chief's father's boots) took a liking to me and would invite me to his quarters to ride with him, or to go on rounds to his stations with his chauffeur (lovingly known as the chief's 'suck'), Billy.

It wasn't too long after I started showing up at the 12's fires (first or second due), that he gave a standing order, "The officer of Engine 12 WILL instruct his crew to post Mark's ten-speed bike on the hose bed and return him to Providence College after every fire!" And it drew many strange looks from students when the rig would pull up in front of my dorm (no lights or siren, as they were accustomed to), and one of the firefighters would pass my bike down, to me, standing on the back step! A number of times my bike even made it into the back of Car 23's station wagon and he and Billy would drive me back to the college.

I went on to bunk often at Engine 14 and Ladder 6, Pride of Federal Hill; Engine 10, 11 and Ladder 2, Broad Street Bullies; and Engine 8, Ladder 2, the Screaming Eagles. In fact, often times when at a false alarm, a Code Blue, I'd hear the officer on the other engine yell over, "Hey, who's your fourth man?", as the rigs then ran an officer and two firefighters. "Mark Donovan", the lieutenant would reply, for me to hear back, "Hey, Mark, come over to our house, we'll show you some REAL fire!" And more often than not, I would be over there the next day or the next weekend. I even used to get invited over to the different houses for "big meals". "Mark, Tommy's making his special lasagna dinner, make sure you're here Sunday 1 p.m.!" And I never paid a penny.

By my junior year I was publishing a monthly fire newsletter, CODE RED!, covering the New England fire service, and having fostered a relationship with Chief Michael Moise, had been named the (un)official Providence Fire Department photographer. After several of my photos appeared in the Providence Journal (RI's major daily newspaper), I was given access to their fully-equipped photo lab, where at 1 a.m. I would develop my film so that the pictures would be ready for the early morning editor to consider for publishing… no digital cameras back then! I ran black and white film, pushed to 400 a.s.a.

Still lacking a car, when I couldn't bike to a job, I relied on the FD Chaplain, Fr. Frances Nealy, a teacher who resided on campus. Fr. Nealy must have been in his late sixties or early seventies, he was no spring chicken. When I'd hear the second go out, I'd call and wake him up, and he'd grumble, "Meet me at the car in five minutes." While I did appreciate having a mode of transport, I was, frankly, embarrassed by his ride. I don't remember what kind of car it was (but it was OLD, like 60's – and a 'granny car' — but it was red). He had a radio that took a few minutes to warm up, and a Roto-Ray light (remember them?) on the roof. He would sign on the air and off we'd go… "peeling" along the highway at like 40 miles an hour, red light spinning, while 18 wheelers screamed by us, clearly the slowest vehicle on the road. I don't know if it was because of his eyesight or that his car couldn't go any faster, but it was a real hoot. Pulling up to the scene, I felt like Andy Griffith on Mayberry R.F.D.!

So that particular December nite, I made my way up to Aquinas Hall. Few of the apparatus remained, as it had been a quick knockdown, once the contents had combusted (today’s ‘flashover’) and the bodies removed to the Aquinas chapel, where I had attended mass many, many times. It was then that I learned how serious it was. Upon arrival of Engine 12 and Ladder 3, there was heavy smoke from all windows. They immediately struck the second. There was difficulty getting the Ladder close to the building. Immediately those students who were there began to push vehicles in the parking lot, the snow acting like lubricant, to clear a way for the Ladder.

Ladder 3 pulled up and three girls were visible standing on the ledge of their fourth story window, hands clenching hands, as smoke billowed out from behind them. The chauffeur ran to raise the stick while the officer began to ascend it, no time to put the jacks down. The officer climbing the ladder while the chauffeur was turning the table, he screamed to the girls to hang on, as they were preparing to jump. When the stick was a mere few feet away, he watched two of them jump, falling to their deaths. He was able to grab the remaining girl and, according to one witness "threw her down the ladder." All in all, a total of ten lives were lost, seven at the fire (five smoke/burns, two jumped), and three later. Finals were postponed until after Xmas and most students returned home. Not me.

Tomorrow …. the conclusion

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