Fire roared through a part of the abandoned Merrimac Paper Co. complex on South Canal Street last night, illuminating the southern bank of the Merrimack River with an orange glow that burned late into the night. The blaze was first reported shortly before 7 p.m. and quickly escalated to three alarms. The odors of smoke and the soot hung in the air and carried for a distance, grabbing the attention of football fans watching a game more than a mile away at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Firefighters from area towns helped battle the blaze. The 200,000-square-foot building is boarded up and was condemned several years ago.
But fire officials worried that the 140-year-old structure, at the end of the canal near the intersection of Merrimack Street and South Broadway, might be a death trap for homeless people who are known to inhabit vacant buildings along the river.
Lawrence Fire Chief Peter Takvorian said a quick search was conducted near the access points of the building after receiving initial reports of homeless people being inside.
But firefighters did not go into the heart of the building, primarily because of concerns the roof would collapse. The roof finally caved in with an explosion-like sound shortly after 9 p.m.
"We will not go in and check the weakened back of the structure," Chief Takvorian said, as he looked at fire jetting through the roof.
"It's too hazardous to put my people in this structure. Our strategy right now is stay on the exterior, surround and drown it."
Takvorian said it was too early to determine the cause of the blaze, but arson investigators were at the scene.
The Lawrence Fire Department used an 85-foot snorkel truck and ladder trucks, spraying water onto the roof on the former shipping and receiving building that housed truck dock #1.
Unsafe building conditions dictated a cautious approach to a fire that would take several hours to knock down.
"It had grown in intensity to the point where we couldn't get control of the fire without entering the building," Takvorian said. "And there's no way I'm risking any of my personnel on a building that is structurally unsound."
Auxiliary Police Chief Jay Jackson called two dozen of his volunteer officers to assist with traffic and crowd control. They blocked off Merrimack Street from the Central Bridge to the Falls Bridge.
Firefighters have been worrying about a possible fire at the site for several years.
In 2007, city officials said more than $142,000 was owed by the building's owners for fire watches from the periods of December 2005 through November 2006 and January through May 2007. The city placed a lien on the property and was involved in discussions to collect the money.
City officials said the fire watches became necessary when the sprinkler system wasn't operating.
Merrimac Paper, which traced its roots in Lawrence back to 1866, closed for good on June 29, 2005, putting 75 employees out of work. The closure came just two years after the company had emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Merrimac manufactured paper products ranging from colored office folders to specialty pages used in books. It was purchased by Holyoke Card Co. in 2000.
Still, even in the wake of Merrimac Paper's closing, there were big plans for a lofty project at the site.
Maine-based developer King Weinstein said he and his business associates were interested in revamping the building into 100 apartment units, a brew pub and restaurant. But the plans never materialized.
Written by The Eagle-Tribune
Courtesy of YellowBrix - YellowBrix