December 13, 1977 – Fire at Providence College kills 10 students

Early in the morning of December 13, 1977, a fire broke out on the fourth floor of Aquinas Hall, a woman’s dormitory at Providence College. Within thirty minutes, ten young women were dead – seven from the smoke and flames and three from jumping to escape the inferno. I was a sophomore at the school at the time and have vivid memories of the aftermath of the fire although I was at home here in Lowell the night it happened.

December 12, 1977 was the start of “reading period”, the time between the end of classes and the start of exams. I thought I’d get more studying done at home so I returned to Lowell for a few days, but my roommates and others remained and related events to me the next day. It snowed that night, the first of the season. The “quad” formed by McDermott, McVinney and Aquinas Halls became the site of a major snow ball fight involving nearly one hundred students. By 2 a.m., everyone was back in their dorm rooms, mostly asleep. The fire broke out shortly after that in a fourth floor room of Aquinas Hall, an older building that consisted of first floor lecture halls and three floors of rooms for woman residents. Although I’ve never seen an official report of the cause of the fire, I’ve been told that someone trying to dry out mittens made wet from the snowball fight left a blow dryer running inside a closet. Whatever the cause of ignition, the fire started in one of the rooms. I believe the three residents of that room all made it out. Not so many of their floor mates. Aquinas Hall was particularly susceptible to fire at that point because of a long tradition of a Christmas dorm decorating contest. The fourth floor was a top contender, having covered every square inch of the walls and ceiling of the hallway with decorations and crepe paper. The decorations provided deadly fuel to the fire, however, because once the flames made it out into the hallway, all the paper turned it into a tunnel of flame.

At about 6 am on the morning of the fire, an early rising relative had caught the news on TV and called my parents to report the fire and ask if they’d heard from me. Everyone was pleased I was safely in the adjoining room. Later that morning I drove back to the school. There was a memorial mass held that day in the gymnasium. It was a reminder of the importance of religion in getting through tragedy. Exams were postponed until after the Christmas break and everyone left for home. When we returned, a very intense fire safety program was implemented and strictly enforced, something that is very important to me even today. Six weeks later, four feet of snow descended on us as we endured the Blizzard of 78. Three years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the fire, I traveled back to the school for a memorial mass that included the dedication of an alcove of the newly constructed chapel that memorialized the ten fallen students. Fire can strike so, so fast. There’s no substitute for prudence and preparedness.

58 Responses to December 13, 1977 – Fire at Providence College kills 10 students

  1. kim fasolo martin says:

    Hi my name is Kim Fasolo and I was the last remaining room to be rescued by ladder that night. My roomate and I watched those women jump to their deaths snd we could just pray that we were not next. That night changed my soul forever. I try to pay forward as many lessons from that night to my kids and grandkids. If you want to reach out thats fine

  2. mike dasilva says:

    another anniversary upon us. Jackie was my first cousin. I was only 10 yrs old in 1977, 38 years ago today was the only day I ever saw my dad cry. seems like yesterday. I think of her often throughout the year but today is always a hard day. the devastation is not describable. my prayers for all the other families and friends, God Bless you all.

  3. Mike Clark says:

    I went to school with Sallyann Garvey in our hometown of Enfield, CT. When I was 14 years old I spent an afternoon and evening working up the courage to call her and ask her out. When I did, she turned me down but she was so nice about it and still would smile and say hi when we’d see each other in school. I quit school in my junior year and went in to the Navy and Sally went on to College after graduation. She was such a sweet lovely girl. I was in Japan when I read in a hometown newspaper that she had died as the result of a fire. Sally succumbed to her injuries on Tuesday Dec. 27, 1977 at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. I think about that fire and of Sallyann Garvey every year at Christmas time. I was quite wild and careless in my youth and it always troubles me when I think how as a kid I broke the rules and screwed up a lot and there was this beautiful young woman that I knew who did everything right, who had such a promising future ahead of her but was taken away so young and I don’t understand.

  4. Cheryl says:

    I was a sophomore , commuter at PC in1977. Jackie Botelho, was the RA in Aquinas Hall. She was in a few of my classes. I remember hearing stories of how she made it out of the building on that horrible night. But, she went back in to bang on doors to wake other residents, many who were still asleep. She never walked out again. She was my hero. I’ve never talked about this. To this day,whenever I hear fire engine sirens blare I tear up. God bless those ten angels who perished as well as their families. We will never forget.

  5. Deb says:

    I lived on that floor- went out by fire ladder, with my two roommates. Hard to describe that night, and think of my floor mates….