1963 would start with one of the largest downtown fires in Westerly’s history. the weather was as it has been recently with above normal temperatures. On Tuesday January 8, 1963, a fire was discovered in the Barber Memorial Building 58 High St. Witnesses heard what sounded like a small explosion and later flames erupted from the rear of the Barber Building. Box 1122 in Dixon Square was used to summon Westerly firefighters to the scene at 7:20 pm. Chief Pasetti upon arrival at the scene requested aid from Pawcatuck (1 Engine and a Ladder), Watch Hill (1 Engine and a Ladder), and Dunn’s Corners (1 Engine). In addition, Chief Pasetti also pressed the 1927 Ahrens Fox Pumper into service to assist in augmenting the water supply.
Initially, the Westerly Fire Department began their attack in the front but, then moved to the rear of the Barber Building by accessing the alley between the Potter-Langworthy and Barber Buildings. Westerly Ladder 1 and one engine were faced with heavy fire showing from the top floor. In the rear the building measured five stories while in the front it measured three stories. As firefighters began to stretch lines to the top floor via the fire escape the ladder pipe was placed into service to knock down the heavy fire and to protect the men working on the fire escape. Meanwhile in front, Westerly, Pawcatuck, and Watch Hill firefighters were attacking the fire using the ladder pipes from the Pawcatuck and Watch Hill ladder trucks. As the fire ripped through the roof of the Barber Building it ate its way through the fire wall into the top floor of the Porter-Loveland Building. Firefighters stretched additional 2 ½ inch hose lines to the roof of the Willard’s Hardware store via ladders to pour water into windows on the side of the Porter-Loveland Building. The Westerly Ambulance Corps was on scene to render first aid and the Westerly Rescue Squad truck used its lights to illuminate the front of the building.
As the fire spread, and the smoke covered the downtown area, a large crowd of spectators was drawn to watch firefighters battle the enormous blaze. Westerly Police Chief Raymond Meikle found his on duty shift and Westerly Fire Police overwhelmed by the hundreds of people filling High St watching the blaze. He called in 12 members of the Westerly Police Reserves to assist with crowd control. As the fire progressed through the blind attic and other void spaces weakening the roof’s structural supports, the large cornices on the front of the Barber Building became a collapse concern for firefighters and spectators. Chief Pasetti began moving apparatus and men out of the collapse zones while Chief Meikle and his officers moved the spectators out of the area. They had some assistance from the smoke as it sat low and its acrid smell drove many spectators further away. The fire was not declared under control until well after midnight almost four and a half hours after it began. Over 150 firefighters fought the blaze and fortunately only one was injured. Westerly fireman Robert Browning, a member of the Alert Hook & Ladder Co. #1, was knocked unconscious when a section of the roof collapsed as firefighters were overhauling. He was removed by members of the Westerly Fire Department and Westerly Rescue Squad to an ambulance that transported him to Westerly Hospital. He was treated and released.
With the fire extinguished, Chief Pasetti began releasing the other fire companies who provided mutual aid. Westerly firefighters would remain throughout the night guarding against a rekindle. Damage from the fire to both buildings was kept to the top floor and roof areas although lower floors suffered a great deal of smoke and water damage. Rhode Island State Fire Marshals and Westerly Police began working to determine the cause of the fire. Building Inspector Angelo Algiere declared the roofs of both buildings and the cornices to be unsafe and ordered them removed. Westerly Police would keep High St closed until the buildings were made safe for pedestrians and auto traffic. Six hundred thousand gallons of water was used by firefighters to subdue the fire according to figures provided by Water Works supervisor Oscar Chapman. Businesses affected included Narragansett Lodge 200 and its affiliated organizations and maintained headquarters, The Shoe Box, Jack & Jill Juvenile Shop, and the office of Dr. Walter Seretski which suffered water and smoke damage in the Porter-Loveland building. In the Barber building the top floor was vacant after the Masonic Lodge moved out three years ago but the Westerly Jewelry Co., Frederick’s, an appliance store, Carrol’s Cut Rate Drug Store, the offices of Rossi & Lewis, the Republican Town Committee and the storage rooms of the Westerly Jewelry Co. suffered smoke and water damage. Adjusters did not provide loss estimates for the buildings or the five businesses effected.
Both buildings remain a part of downtown Westerly with businesses thriving in both. The Barber Building was named after P.S. Barber the benefactor of the present-day Pawcatuck Fire Department. This fire demonstrated the great cooperation of the many volunteer fire companies in Westerly.