PAWTUCKET — Since it opened on September 11, 2008, the Sean Nassaney Emergency Operations Center has proved useful for coordinating city workers during major snowstorms and last March's flooding. However, EMA Director Robert Howe said he never imagined it would one day serve as a command center for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Following last Wednesday night's massive fire that destroyed a large portion of the vacant Union Wadding Company mill on Goff Avenue, about two dozen special agents from the ATF have arrived in Pawtucket to join state and local officials in the investigation into the cause. Howe invited the ATF to utilize the Emergency Operations Center as its temporary headquarters, allowing the agents to easily communicate and interface with other city personnel and departments.
Since Saturday, ATF agents have been working with members of the Pawtucket Fire Department and state Fire Marshal's Office to comb through charred debris at the scene. Stubborn hot spots that continued into Friday had prevented investigators from entering the site until that point.
Howe and other fire officials have pointed out that it is no easy task, as the blaze was estimated to have damaged more than half of the 450,000-square-foot factory building that once produced Christmas decorations and other items. Built of brick, the three-story building, dating back to the mid-to late 1800s, had thick wood floors. The roof and several ceilings and walls had collapsed, creating layers of material that have to be sifted through one section at a time.
The two-story building located next to the public works garage on Armistice Boulevard, was built with federal money. A roomy conference center contains state-of-the-art video screens, computers and “white boards” that have been helpful to the ATF agents in their operations and daily briefings.
“This was the perfect place for the agents to conduct briefings and interviews because it allowed privacy as they carried on their operations,” noted Howe. He added that there are also computers dedicated specifically to the Police Department, Fire Department, City Hall and the Department of Public Works to allow for quick access to city officials.
“It has been a pleasure having the agents in the building, and something like this solidifies the need for a building of this magnitude, which was paid for through a federal grant,” noted Howe.
The federal ATF agents, part of a National Response Team, have come from all over the U.S. to help with the fire investigation, Howe said. Some agents are with the Providence office, but there are agents from Chicago, Florida, New York, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming.
One agent from Chicago, who was not allowed to give his name, said that most of the agents work in their own states, but then volunteer to travel to other places when there is a call for help, such as with the Union Wadding case. Pawtucket Fire Chief William Sisson had asked for assistance from the ATF because the size and scope of the fire investigation process was beyond what local authorities could handle.
So far, there has been no announcement made as to the cause of the fire, which many have called “suspicious.” City Fire Marshal Steven Parent said on Tuesday that some material had been sent out to a Maryland laboratory for testing, but that no further information was being released. According to several ATF agents on Wednesday, the investigation was wrapping up and a final briefing was scheduled for Wednesday evening.
It was learned late Wednesday afternoon from the Rhode Island State Fire Marshal's office that a press conference had been scheduled for Thursday (today) at the Pawtucket Fire Station headquarters.