Saturday August 8, 1998 was a beautiful early August day. The weather was warm and the sky was blue. As day turned into night Sunday August 9th would bring a tremendous change to Westerly. In the early morning hours of August 9th Westerly Police Officer Kenneth Brown noticed a glow in the sky. His investigation led him to the Westerly State Airport where he found the terminal building on fire. As he radioed headquarters to report the fire, he spotted a fire alarm box, box 1328, and pulled the lever. The time was 3:02 am. Westerly Dispatch receiving the box and the report from the police quickly announced a structure fire at Westerly Airport. The terminal was part of the airport which had been developed in 1936 through the auspices of the Works Progress Administration and state government. During World War II the United States Navy invested $1.2 million to extend the runaways, build several structures and runway lighting improvements as a night fighter training base. In 1946 the Navy returned the airport to the State of Rhode Island, In 1958 the administration building was rehabilitated to allow for general aviation operations, pilot facilities and a restaurant.
Responding to the alarm of fire at the airport were the five pieces of apparatus including four pumpers and the ladder truck and the chief and assistant chiefs. The first arriving fire officer reported the terminal building was almost completely involved in fire. Engine 3 arrived and began the initial attack. The only hydrant on the airport property at the time was near the A/B corner of the front of the building. Engine 2 took this hydrant and laid away from the building. Engine 1 arrived next while Engine 4 laid a line from a hydrant on Airport Road. Of immediate concern were the aircraft parked on the runway side of the building. Ladder 1 was directed to force entry to the gate leading to the airfield near Reeves’ Air and move the aircraft away from the building. Also of major concern was a propane tank next to the building. Firefighters were able to disconnect it and move it away from the building. The size of the fire and developing water supply issues required more assistance to move water to the scene. A ladder truck and pumper were requested from the Pawcatuck Fire Department as well as a pumper and tanker from Dunn’s Corners Fire Department, a pumper from Watch Hill Fire Department and a tanker from Ashaway Fire Department. An additional 1400 feet of hose was laid from a hydrant at Route 1 and 78. With the adequate water, the fire was knocked down by 4:00 am. As of 6:00 am the fire was out. The building had collapsed into an enormous pile of rubble. Over 85 firefighters from the various departments assisted in extinguishing the fire. Westerly Ambulance was on scene and was assisted by Ashaway, Charlestown, and Stonington Ambulance Corps. Three firefighters were transported for injuries ranging from heat exhaustion, an ankle injury, and a minor head injury. Several others were treated at the scene.
Chief Joseph Misto requested the State Fire Marshal’s office to investigate. Rhode Island State Fire Marshal Irving J. Owens and six investigators were on scene awaiting a crane to remove debri so a cause could be determined. Chief Misto surmised the fire had been burning for some time before it was discovered and once it broke out of the building’s windows fed on the oxygen growing out of control and dooming the building. He noted the building, due to its age, had no fire alarm or fire suppression systems that could have given an earlier warning and possibly held the fire before it worsened. Businesses affected included New England Airlines, Sharon’s Flight Deck Diner and the offices of Hawthorne Aviation, the company hired by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation to manage the state’s small airports. On September 1st State Fire Marshal Owens released a preliminary report on the cause of the fire. It was ruled accidental most likely from an electrical issue. The conversation on rebuilding provided an opportunity to rebuild the terminal also included upgrading the water line servicing the new terminal as well as updated fire protection including a sprinkler system. Today a modern terminal and more adequate water including a hydrant on the tarmac provide greater protection for one of Westerly’s greatest assets.