It is not unusual for old large buildings to experience a serious fire. The Lombardo Building is no stranger to this. Two serious fires did severe damage to the building 50 years apart. The first major fire occurred in June of 1964 while the second occurred in June of 2014. Both fires required a large response of fire equipment and firefighters to extinguish. The efforts of both groups were able to save the building.
Thursday June 6, 1964 would be a long night for area firefighters. On their way home, 2 men were driving into town via Granite St when the spotted smoke lingering over the downtown area. They were able to trace the source to the rear of the Westerly Furniture Store at 37 High St. Box 3111 was sounded at 10:20 pm by the men who awaited the arrival of firefighters to direct them to the rear of the store. The fire managed to gain a great deal of head way as the rear two story annex was fully involved by the time firefighters arrived. The advanced nature of the fire led Chief Pasetti to conclude the blaze had been burning for a several hours before being discovered. Firefighters immediately went to work stretching hose lines and raising ladders to access the area involved. A tremendous effort was exerted by firefighters to keep the fire from extending into the main building and by midnight it seemed they had won this struggle. At 12:30 am the fire burst into the main show room on the first floor. With the large amount of furniture on display the flames had an enormous fuel load to consume. As the furniture was consumed, the fire built up a great deal of smoke. Chief Pasetti summoned assistance from the Pawcatuck Fire Department at 1:00 am requesting a pumper and ladder truck. Prior to Pawcatuck’s arrival, what firefighters on scene described as a backdraft occurred, shattering the large plate glass windows in the front of the store. An inferno erupted from the front windows and Westerly and Pawcatuck firefighters moved quickly to place large caliber hose streams into operation at the front of the store. Watch Hill fire fighters arrived to offer assistance which was gladly accepted. The fire was brought under control around 4:00 am but firefighters would remain on scene well into late Friday morning June 5th. Damage to stock and the building was heavy. The blaze had swept up the rear stairs to involve the upper floors and roof. In one area at the rear of the store the inferno was so intense it completely burned away a section of the floor making overhauling treacherous for firefighters. The photography studio of Maurice La Grua and the dental laboratory operated by Edward Levy on the second floor were damaged. The Narragansett Commandery, Knights Templar of Westerly were also joint owners of the building. Other places with smoke damage were the Mayflower Restaurant, Ross Camera Shop, Nigrelli Jewelry Co., the office of the Beneficial Finance Co. and the empty First National Store. Despite the intensity of the blaze only 2 minor injuries were reported by firefighters. Asst. Chief Claudio Comolli was cut on the left knee and taken to the Westerly Hospital by Westerly Ambulance treated and released. Thomas Keena, of the Cyclones, suffered an eye injury when struck by a piece of glass received first aid treatment and remained on the scene. On a lighter note, one firefighter joined the fight in his suit and ruined a pair of shoes. It was reported that when he approached Chief Pasetti for funds to replace them he laughed and said, “The Fire District does not pay for personal clothing.”
All equipment from Westerly including the Ahrens Fox pumper were brought to bear at this fire. The Westerly Ambulance Corps was on scene to provide first aid and the Westerly Rescue Squad assisted with scene lighting and the Westerly Red Cross was on scene providing coffee and sandwiches to firemen. Westerly Director of Public Works Commission, Clarence Dion estimated firefighters used over 650,000 gallons of water to douse the flames. The cause of the fire was attributed to one of the furniture company’s two delivery trucks stored in the annex where the fire began. After the fire the building was repaired and a fire alarm system was added with direct tie into the fire department via fire box 322.
Fast forward to Sunday June 23, 2014. Westerly Dispatch received Box 322 for the Lombardo Building at 11:56 pm. Almost immediately after dispatching the Westerly Fire Department the dispatcher began receiving multiple 911 calls of fire from the location with reports of people in the building. 911 calls were also being fielded by Stonington Police who sent a car to assist. It is important to note that the building had undergone renovations creating apartments on the second and third floors. Fortunately the building received a sprinkler upgrade and this would be key in holding the fire. First arriving units from Westerly Fire Department found heavy fire in the rear of the building involving the second and third floor decks and immediately struck a second alarm bringing two additional engines and a ladder truck from Pawcatuck Fire Department. People were identified on the third floor front and second floor front that need assistance from the building. Westerly Ladder 1 was positioned in the front of the building to remove the people from the third floor. Their crew was spilt and members went to the second floor and escorted the two occupants down the front stairs. Engine 4 was directed to the rear of the building to attack the fire but their crew was needed to raise a ground ladder to the third floor using a 35 foot ladder to remove another third floor occupant. Engine 4 used their deck gun to knock down the fire. Pawcatuck's ladder truck was directed to the rear to assist with access to the roof. Westerly Engine 1 went to the front of the building to begin stretching lines to the upper floors. They were joined by a Pawcatuck crew. As mentioned earlier the sprinkler system kept the fire which began on the rear decks in check. Westerly Engines 2 and 3 supplied water from hydrants on High St to the rear via the alley way between the Lombardo Building and the old Narraganset Electric Building Damage to the decks forced a collapse zone to be established in the rear and did not allow access to the rear.
Manpower was needed to complete extinguishment so Stonington Borough Fire Department sent their ladder truck and Wequetequock Fire Department sent an engine. One occupant and a police officer were taken to Westerly Hospital by Westerly Ambulance for treatment of smoke inhalation. The added manpower allowed for the firefighters to enter both the second floor and third floor to complete extinguishment. The rear decks were completely destroyed and water damage was extensive throughout all floors of the building. Fire and smoke damage were also extensive to the apartments that accessed the decks. The building is still standing thanks to the efforts of both groups who fought long hard battles to save the building during both major fires.