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Wind Whipped Fire Ravaged City Known As World’s Waste Capital 20 Years Ago

October 13, 1993

CHELSEA, Mass. (AP) _ It’s been 20 years since a wind-whipped fire that started in the rag-shop district burned down 360 buildings, requiring 1,500 firefighters to put it out.

Much of the area has yet to be rebuilt, the city has gone into receivership and firefighters warn there is no way a similar inferno could be fought as intensely today.

The Oct. 14, 1973, fire claimed no lives in this tiny town near Boston as it marched through districts of warehouses filled with flammable materials, closely built tenements and junk car lots.

Although the cause was never determined officially, retired Fire Chief Herbert C. Fothergill said it may have been started by children playing with matches.

It started in about the same place as a 1908 inferno that claimed 19 lives and destroyed 3,500 buildings. Fothergill said he is worried a fire today might be more like the 1908 blaze because of cutbacks in Chelsea and other recession-weary cities and towns. Chelsea’s financial problems were so great the state took control of the city in 1991.

″We could not put together the response to Chelsea if that fire occurred today that we did 20 years ago. It’s just not available,″ Fire Lt. Bill Sullivan said.

Other old mill cities in New England where housing is wood-frame, old and built close together also could experience similar fires today if the conditions were right, Fothergill warned.

″It was very dry. We hadn’t had any rain for 30 some odd days. The humidity was low and it was very warm for the day and it was windy,″ Fothergill said. ″It didn’t take long for it to get started.″

The heat was so intense the buildings went up in flames before the fire actually reached them. Fans attending a New England Patriots game in Foxboro, 30 miles south, could see a dark cloud of smoke rising from the horizon.

Fothergill said he had to sacrifice part of the city to save the rest.

″The final stand was made in front of the Williams School. We had to stop it there or give up the rest of the city,″ Fothergill said.

While Chelsea survived the fire, many vacant lots remain in the area once filled with commercial buildings and tenements.

Harry Spence, the state receiver appointed by Gov. William F. Weld to get the city’s finances in order, is trying to attract new light industry and a state computer building to the empty land.

Spence is also trying to restore some of the cuts made to the fire department over the past 20 years, Sullivan said. The Chelsea Fire Department has 37 fewer firefighters, three fewer stations and three fewer pumper trucks than it did that Sunday in 1973.

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