July 1, 1988 was a beautiful day in Westerly 33 years ago. It was sunny and warm with low humidity. There was a light breeze from the southwest. Electric Boat workers were in the first day of a general strike after contract negotiations had broken down. All in all, this would be a bad thing for the people in our area but on this day it was fortuitous. During this time there was no statewide 911 system or cell phones. Reporting a fire was done one of two ways, pulling a fire alarm box or calling the fire department directly using the seven digit phone number. On the morning of July 1, 1988 many department members were just leaving for work at there respective jobs after morning coffee at the Westerly Fire Station. At 8:58 am the fire phone rang in the firehouse. The caller was an employee of United Builders Supply lumberyard reporting a fire in one of the storage buildings at Yard #1 30 Oak Street. As the volunteer who answered the phone I hung up and transmitted the fire box for Oak and Haswell, Box 3143 setting off the horn on the fire station and made the announcement over the radio, the fire phone and business phone began to ring again. All of Westerly’s apparatus rolled immediately and as Engine 3 pulled out of the station smoke was visible inside Wilcox Park. Simultaneously, Assistant Chief Frank Narciso, Car 33, reported he had smoke showing but was not yet on scene. One minute later he ordered the second engine to lay lines from the hydrant at Oak and Spruce into the yard behind Engine 3. Upon hearing, the first radio reports Chief Robert Mackay responding from his home ordered the dispatcher at the Fire Station to roll Reserve Engine 1, the 1953 Seagrave pumper, and request the Pawcatuck Fire Department for an pumper and a ladder truck.
As Engine 3 pulled into the lumberyard they were directed to the rear northeast corner where a fire was raging in an open face 2-story storage shed containing fiberglass insulation and asphalt shingles. Radiant heat was causing two similar buildings in close proximity to smolder around their roof lines. Engine 1 laid two 2 ½ inch hoselines into the yard. These were the days before we regularly used 4 inch supply hose. Ladder 1 followed and pulled up to the nose of Engine 3 and began to set up their ladder pipe. Engine 2 connected to the hydrant and arriving members ran another 2 ½ inch line into the yard to Engine 1. The first hoselines were used to protect the two buildings while other firefighters began running hoselines to attack the fire in the building of origin. Reserve Engine 1 was directed behind the former Butler Brothers Oil Company building. They were followed by Pawcatuck’s ladder truck, Truck 1. Pawcatuck Engine 1 laid 2 3 inch lines to a hydrant at Oak and Gavitt Ave. With water supply established, Reserve Engine 1 fed Pawcatuck Truck 1 and together with Westerly Ladder 1 their ladder pipes were used to subdue the fire. With heavy fire knocked down handlines were advanced to complete extinguishment. As a result of heavy damage to the beam supporting the second floor no firefighters were permitted to enter the fire building so completing extinguishment proved difficult. After an almost three hour battle fought by over 85 firefighters, the fire was declared under control. The fact that many of these firefighters were Electric Boat employees aided in the large response and ultimately saved the entire lumberyard. Damage was mostly confined to the building of origin and its contents. Smoke and water damaged the two building and their contents nearest the fire building. No firefighters were injured.
Michael Slosberg, the owner of United Builders Supply, was so impressed and grateful for the efforts of both departments he created a fund for firefighters from both departments to enjoy a picnic once a year. Interestingly, Mr. Slosberg joined the Westerly Fire Department several years later as a member of the Cyclone Steam Fire Engine Co.# 2. His fund continues to be used by the departments today as the picnic is set after the annual Columbus Day Parade each year.