Saturday March 25, 1978 was a normal day in Westerly. Temperatures were in the low to mid forties and Westerly had recovered from the Blizzard of 78. Westerly firefighters were placing Ladder 1 back into service after the truck underwent replacement of its manual transmission with an automatic one. While out of service Alert Hook & Ladder Co. #1 members revarnished the wooden ladders, repainted the tips and replaced all the halyards. The truck could not have returned to service at a more opportune time.
As Saturday passed into Sunday, a Westerly Police officer patrolling the downtown area noticed smoke between Dixon Square and the parking lot that was once the site of the Potter-Langworthy Building. The officer summoned the fire department from Box 534, the fire alarm box on the outside of the United Theatre at 10 minutes after midnight. The first engine to respond was Engine 3. As it came up High St the patrolman directed them to the building housing Chase & Co., Ger-Dees, and Nash’s Newstand on the first floor, the law offices of Attorney Joseph J. Parilla, the building owner, the offices of K-Parr Realty, and a dance studio on the upper floor. This building would have been to the left of the building housing the former Malted Barley.
Engine 3 forced entry into Chase & Co. and was met with heavy smoke. Firefighters stretched a pre-connected 1 ½ inch hose line into the building. First Assistant Chief Tom Keena arrived and directed Ladder 1 and Engine 1 to enter High St from the Square side. He would be the incident commander as Chief Robert Mackay was laid up with the flu. Engine 1 would connect to the hydrant in front of Nigrelli’s Jewelry. It was determined the fire started in the basement and Engine 3 was sent to the rear of the building using the driveway between what is now Perks and Corks and the parking lot. Engine 2 was directed to enter High St from the Canal St. side. They would take the hydrant near the old Narragansett Electric building. Engine 1 would stretch 2-2 ½ inch hose lines to the front of the building and also supply Ladder 1’s ladder pipe. By now the fire which had a head start on firefighters began extending up a rear interior stairwell to the upper floors and roof area. Engine 2 supplied Engine 3 and 2-2 ½ inch hose lines to the northern exposure building. With conditions worsening, Assistant Chief Keena summoned Pawcatuck and Watch Hill to send additional units. He also pressed into service Reserve Engine 1, the 1953 Seagrave pumper, to draft from the Pawcatuck River in the rear to supply Engine 3. Pawcatuck’s ladder was positioned on the north side while Westerly’s ladder worked the south side. Additionally, a Pawcatuck pumper was placed in the parking lot next to the Barber Memorial building to draft from the river and lines were stretched to the rear over a fence near what is the Shallows restaurant. Wequetequock was also summoned to pump from a hydrant on West Broad St to a Pawcatuck pumper on Coggswell St. Firefighters there stretched hoselines to the river and aimed their streams across the river into the back part of the building where fire was blowing out all the openings.
Smoke was extremely heavy and firefighters working on the aerial ladders had to be constantly rotated as their air supply ran out. All firefighters were removed from the fire building as the fire intensified and all efforts were put into protecting the buildings on either side. A saving grace for these buildings was the fact that they both had fire walls separating them. A doorway between one of the buildings and the fire building was closed and a 2 ½ hose line placed on the exposure side to prevent extension. Watch Hill’s pumper laid in from the hydrant near the parking lot next to McCrory’s and positioned to the rear of Westerly Ladder 1. They supplied hose lines brought over ground ladders to the roof of the Thom McAn shoe store. As the fire progressed into an all night affair, Assistant Chief Keena summoned Misquamicut to send an engine to standby in Westerly’s station.The Westerly Ambulance Corps and Westerly Rescue Squad assisted on scene. The fire consumed the entire interior of the building and collapsed into the basement.
As the sun rose in the morning, it was obvious the investigation would be time consuming. Only the exterior walls remained. Debris from the roof and upper floors was stacked up in the basement. Firefighters left hose lines attached to hydrants to combat flair ups. Westerly Police and the Rhose Island State Fire Marshal’s office would investigate the cause of the fire. State Fire Marshal Henry Serbst would lead the probe of the fire. Investigators were focusing on the basement as to the origin of the fire.The building was eventually torn down and a new building was built in its place.