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Mill Fire Destroys Buildings, Fabric and Livelihoods

December 12, 1995

METHUEN, Mass. (AP) _ An explosion and fire didn’t just level most of the Malden Mills textile factory.

It destroyed a near-miraculous success story of the New England textile industry. It threatened the supply of fleecy Polartec fabric to customers such as L.L. Bean. And it put at least 1,400 people out of work just before Christmas.

``Two weeks before Christmas it’s all gone,″ Chris McRae, a veteran employee, said Tuesday. ``This building has been here for 100 years, and now there’s nothing left.″

The fire Monday night began with an explosion, possibly in a boiler, so powerful that it blew out the sprinkler system. Four of the five enormous buildings in the complex were reduced to smoking piles of brick, wood and metal. Thirty-three people were injured, eight critically.

The mill had stood at the heart of a textile city that blossomed when the War of 1812 cut off the supply of fabric from overseas. The complex was built by Arlington Mill in 1867 to replace a wooden mill that had burned down the year before.

Methuen’s textile makers never reached the size and wealth of others in the region, such as in Lawrence and Lowell along the Merrimack River, because they were powered by the smaller Spicket River.

Still, most produced steadily until hard times hit the industry in the 1920s and ’30s. Arlington Mill hung on, then became Arcadia Mills. Malden Mills moved into the complex during the 1950s.

The company provided valuable jobs in an economically depressed area with the development of Polartec, the warm, fleecy synthetic material used in outdoor gear sold by many of the most popular sporting goods stores.

The fabric, made solely by Malden Mills, helped bring the family-owned company out of bankruptcy in the 1980s and now represents nearly half its annual $500 million in sales.

Partly because of the sophisticated manufacturing process used to convert recycled soda bottles into the patented 100 percent polyester fabric, Malden Mills pays employees an average of $12.50 an hour, compared with the industry average of $9.44. With 1,400 workers in the mill _ 3,100 overall in the company _ it is the biggest employer in Methuen, which is 30 miles north of Boston.

``This place here has put first-generation immigrants into the middle class,″ said Norman Menzies, a local contractor, as he looked over the devastation.

The company projected last month that its sales of Polartec would reach $1 billion annually in five years. It wasn’t clear what effect Monday’s fire would have on supplies.

``They’re the focal point of this segment of the market,″ said David Herrick, director of the Knitted Textiles Association.

``We were really quite astonished and devastated by the loss,″ said Catharine Hartnett, a spokeswoman for L.L. Bean, which uses Polartec material for vests, pullovers, hats, gloves and parka linings. ``Obviously it will have an impact on our business.″

Owner Aaron Feuerstein, who learned of the fire during his 70th birthday party, promised to rebuild. But he gave no timetable.

``It was a terrible thing, but I didn’t dwell on the tragedy,″ said Feuerstein, the fourth generation of his family to run the business. ``I was only thinking of how to rebuild and how to get jobs back to people as soon as possible.″

The cause of the blaze was under investigation. The 16-hour fire was fed by cloth and chemicals.

Firefighters were hampered by icy 45 mph winds and a water shortage caused by building walls collapsing on the hoses. Chunks of burning wood fell on other businesses and homes, causing at least three other fires.

``It was raining fire,″ said Vernon Bushway of Lawrence, one of 700 people at work when the fire broke out. ``People were falling down. Everybody was screaming, crying.″

Gov. William Weld said the state will try to waive the two-week wait for unemployment benefits.

That was little consolation to Marcelle Gagnon who, with her husband, worked 25 years at the factory, saving enough to buy a home and a new car.

``It’s just like I got a knife right through my heart,″ Gagnon said. ``Now we ask ourselves, `How are we going to survive?‴

Her husband, Jean, said: ``When you work there, that’s your life burning.″

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