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By Asst. Chief Joseph Fusaro
March 13, 2022

Friday March 14, 1975 would be a day to remember in the annals of the Westerly Fire Department. On this day Westerly would experience one of the worst fires in its history. The fire at the Potter-Langworthy building would also showcase the great cooperation the volunteer fire departments in Westerly and Stonington have had for over a century. March 14, 1975 did not start off well. Weather forecasts predicted a potential snowstorm with a minimum of six inches of snow, high winds, and falling temperatures. As the day went on the snow did not materialize, however the winds picked up out of the northwest and a light rain began to fall as the temperatures dropped below freezing. Snow, sleet and rain as well as the wind would play a role in battling the fire.

Shortly before 10:30 pm two workers from the Wayfarer Restaurant noticed smoke coming from the rear of the Potter-Langworthy Building at 64-76 High St. They sounded the alarm from Box 3111 directly across from the building. The first responding apparatus, Engine 3 went to the rear of the building via a driveway next to 6 Canal St. Engine 3 found fire and smoke coming from the northwestern corner of the building. Engine 2 took the hydrant at the corner of High and Canal St. Ladder 1 arrived and was placed in front of the building on the north side. Its aerial was extended to the roof where firemen were sent to begin ventilation. Engine 1 arrived and took the hydrant in front of the Lincoln Building at 47 High St. Chief Robert Mackay immediately summoned the Pawcatuck Fire Department requesting two pumpers and their ladder truck. Both Pawcatuck pumpers would enter the rear to assist Westerly Engine 3. Pawcatuck’s ladder truck would be set up on High St on the south side of the building near Westerly Engine 1. One Pawcatuck engine laid a line from the hydrant at Canal St. and Railroad Ave to the rear while the other entered the rear to draft water from the Pawcatuck River. Unfortunately, during the fire the hydrant at Canal and Railroad would be rendered inoperable due to one of the fittings blowing off. The Pawcatuck engine then proceeded to the river to draft water. Watch Hill Fire was summoned shortly after Pawcatuck for one engine and their ladder truck. Wequetequock was also summoned for an engine. Watch Hill’s ladder truck was sent to the rear as was Wequetequock’s engine. Wequetequock also supplied water through draft from the river. Watch Hill’s ladder was positioned next to Westerly Engine 3. Westerly Police led by Police Chief James Gulluscio and shift supervisor Lieutenant Nunzio Cimalore shut down traffic in the downtown area and helped manage the large crowd of spectators drawn to watch the fire as well as handling the typical calls of a busy Friday night. Members of the Westerly Ambulance Corps and Westerly Rescue Squad were on hand to tend those injured and provide additional lighting.

The fire was extending vertically and laterally in the rear. The extension was further compounded by a brusk northwest wind. Heavy, thick, choking smoke along with the cold temperatures and freezing precipitation made the firefighting operations difficult. The building had many drop ceilings, void spaces and an enclosed rear stairwell that assisted in the spread of the fire. Westerly firefighters attempted to enter the building and attack the fire on the second floor but the fire intensified and all members were pulled out of the building due to the worsening conditions. Chief Mackay decided on an exterior attack and used the ladder pipes from Westerly and Pawcatuck to protect the Wayfarer and Barber Buildings. Westerly, Pawcatuck, and Watch Hill firefighters set up multiple 2 ½ inch hose lines to attack the fire from outside. Firefighters had to evacuate apartments in both of these buildings on either side as smoke began to enter both. Fire would find its way into the Wayfarer but was quickly controlled by firefighters. Lines were also brought into the Barber Building to guard against extension. In the rear the Pawcatuck, Wequetequock, Westerly, and Watch Hill firefighters used one ladder pipe, a deluge set, several 2 ½ inch hoselines and several 1 ½ inch lines to surround the fire. By midnight it seemed the fire was darkening down.

About 30 minutes after midnight the second floor of the Potter-Langworthy building experienced a flashover and fire erupted through the roof. Additional assistance was summoned with one engine from Misquamicut and Dunn’s Corners responding to assist. Firefighters continued to pour water into the second floor from hoselines and onto the roof from the aerial ladders. Chief Mackay declared the fire under control after 2:00 am but fire units remained on scene until 10:00 am Saturday morning to guard against rekindle. Chief Mackay stated it would probably be the worst fire he would ever experience as fire chief. Oscar Chapman, Director of Westerly Public Works estimated firefighting operations accounted for the use of 1.2 million gallons of water from the hydrants. An additional unknown quantity was supplied from the pumpers siphoning water from the Pawcatuck River. Of the 150 firefighters on scene, only seven were injured. Three were transported to Westerly Hospital where they were treated for smoke inhalation and cuts and bruises. Four others were treated on scene.

Businesses affected by the fire included Westerly Jewelry, The Fashion Showroom, Cozy Corner Restaurant, Jeanne’s School of Dance, Louis Cappuccio’s Tailor Shop, Pat’s Barber Shop owned by Pat Cimalore, the Herman Itchkawich Art Studio and a music studio owned by Virginia Regalbuto. Ironically, Westerly Jewelry had moved to this location after a fire in the neighboring Barber Memorial building had been severely damaged by fire in 1963. Almost all lost everything. The fire caused the collapse of the top floors and a partial collapse of the rear wall. The interior was a jumble of twisted metal, wood and contents. Owners Joseph Parilla, James Longolucco, and F. Thomas Lenihan would raze the building as it was not safe in its condition. Initial loss estimates in 1975 exceeded $500,000 comparable to a loss of over $2.6 million today.

Although a devastating fire for the business owners and building owners, the fire did shine a spotlight on the entire community. Business owners such as Charlie Brooks of the Wayfarer provided food and coffee for the firemen throughout the night and the building owners Parilla, Longolucco, and Lenihan made arrangements with owners of the Terminal Lunch Restaurant to serve firefighters breakfast. Officials from the Salvation Army led by Joseph Potter also assisted in providing relief to the firefighters working. The fact that all the departments were volunteers also showed Westerly the dedicated individuals who serve in the various departments.

The Rhode Island State Fire Marshal sent investigators Edmund Gentile and Henry Serbst to investigate the cause. It was determined that the fire began in the basement below the Cozy Corner Restaurant or Fashion Showroom. The history of the Potter-Langworthy Building was rooted in fire. The original wooden building was destroyed by a fire on December 28, 1905. The brick structure destroyed in this fire replaced it. Other than the fire that destroyed it in 1975 another serious fire occurred in this building on March 7, 1939 which also provided a tough fight for Westerly and Pawcatuck. Today the site is now occupied by the downtown parking lot located between Amigos and Perks and Corks.

Add a Comment Add a Comment 1 Comment(s)

Joe clark March 14, 2022 at 10:27 AM
That was a long cold night

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