Sunday February 18th 1996 was a quiet day for most. A recent snowfall and below freezing temperatures marked a normal February in Westerly. The silence would be broken at 8:57 pm that night as 911 calls were being received at Westerly Dispatch in the Westerly Ambulance Corps building on Chestnut St for reports of a house fire at 27 Canal St. Box 4113, Canal at Pleasant, was transmitted along with tones for the Westerly Fire Department. 27 Canal St was a 2 1⁄2 -story old mill style duplex with multiple apartments that provided housing for more than ten people. Arriving firefighters would be confronted with heavy fire extending up from the first floor. Due to the age of the building and its balloon frame construction nothing prevented the extension of the fire.
Engine 3 arrived and firefighters began pulling hose lines to work on cutting off the fire. Engine 1 arrived, establishing a water supply at a hydrant near Miceli’s Furniture on Canal. They supplied Engine 3. Engine 2 and Ladder 1 were directed to take Industrial Drive to Pleasant to Canal to access the scene. Ladder 1 took the front of the building. Engine 2 arrived and laid a supply line from a hydrant at 48 Canal St. they would supply Ladder 1’s ladder pipe and several hose lines. Normally, two pumpers would not use the same water line for supply but, Canal St has the main line coming from the White Rock wells and the main is capable of supplying a great volume of water.
The fire was not able to be cut off and extended rapidly to the second floor and roof. Eventually Chief Joseph Misto removed all firefighters from the building and went to an exterior attack. The fire required the use of two master streams and several 2 ½-inch hose lines to bring it under control. As the fire darkened down, hose lines were shut down, quickly drained, and rolled up. Freezing temperatures caused ice to form on the apparatus and firefighters’ coats and helmets. With the recent snowfall water began to pool in certain areas and froze making the street a skating rink. Aside from the fire and ice, firefighters were also concerned about the extension of the fire to the buildings close by. One building had its siding damaged by heat but the fire did not extend into this structure. Of the 45 firefighters on scene none were injured. A single occupant of the house, a 9-month old infant was taken to Westerly Hospital by Westerly Ambulance to be evaluated but was not admitted. Firefighters remained on scene until 2:30 am . Overhaul on the upper floors proved difficult due to the extensive damage to the stairs and collapse of the roof. Firefighters were called back at 4:00 am to douse several hot spots that flared up.
The house was owned by Thomas Piccolo. Chief Misto declared the building a total loss. Red Cross personnel assisted residents displaced with finding temporary shelter. The fire’s cause was investigated by the Westerly Police and investigators from the Rhode Island Fire Marshal’s office. The fire began in a mattress on the first floor. After ruling out all other possible causes, senior fire investigator Donald Byrne of the Rhode Island Fire Marshal’s office declared it arson. There was a person identified as a potential suspect but no arrest was made. The subject in question did not reside at the residence. A fund was established at the Washington Trust Company for people to donate funds for the families displaced. Chief Misto estimated the loss at between $80,000 to $90,000.