‘Disaster in Lawrence’ Excerpt

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Read Tim Clark’s review of Disaster in Lawrence from the January/February 2008 issue of Yankee.

Excerpt from Disaster in Lawrence: The Fall of the Pemberton Mill, by Alvin F. Oickle, published by The History Press:

John Crawford, a former Pemberton employee, had left his new job at the Washington Mills to search for his daughter, a Pemberton employee. He told of the fire’s start: “I was on the ruins when a young man came up and asked me to hold a lantern. I held it for almost ten minutes, when somebody asked for it, took it, and went down [into the rubble]. He came back and said there was a deep hole there which went down to the Card Room. He went down again…and in getting down struck the lantern on some timbers on the right hand side. When he struck the lantern, it broke and immediately fell. I shouted ‘Fire!’ and stooped down to pull him out. He was on fire himself, and the fire was spreading like gun-powder.”

Richard H. Plumer added to Crawford’s story. “I went towards the center of the building to cut a hole,” he said…”We cut a hole in the roofing about ten feet by three feet,” he continued. “We found some dead bodies there, and there were some persons endeavoring to get out another body. Two persons were holding lanterns for thee men. One of the lanterns dropped [and] fire sprung up from some loose cotton. I called for water, but found none; took off my coat to cover the fire and smother it, but it had got so large that I could not…”

Maddeningly, rescuers could see the trapped Pemberton employees but not reach them. One success was recorded with Ben Adams. Frantic as flames closed in, he was able to free himself using a saw and an axe that were eased through crevices created by the tilted ruins. A man who had found two young women trapped but comparatively comfortable reached coffee into them with the assurance that they would be rescued “in fifteen minutes.” As steady as the clock’s moving hands, fire spread toward them. Despite doubled efforts, the spaces such as the women’s, which had been formed by tilted flooring and machinery, had become flues, drawing flames and heat with frightening speed.”


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