December 13, 1977 fire at Providence College

Two years ago I wrote a post about a deadly fire at Providence College back in 1977. The post has now acquired 22 comments, two just today. I’ve reposted my story and the comments here in memory of the ten students who perished 34 years ago tonight.

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.

22 Comments to “December 13, 1977 – Fire at Providence College kills 10 students”

1. Anonymous
February 1, 2011 at 5:56 pm
wow! i would have been about ..12..lived on hilltop…i remember.
god rest their souls

2. Linda Orcutt
March 16, 2011 at 8:41 pm
A friend of mine, a nursing student (not attending PC) told me she treated one of the students in that dorm and wasn’t sure of the fate of her patient.

3. PC1977
March 22, 2011 at 10:17 pm
Just a couple of corrections to your story. Seven women died that night. The other three died in the months following, the last one being around Easter, as I recall. PC said the official cause was the hair dryer, but I saw a a letter from PC’s insurance company absolving the girls of any responsibility. There was a goose neck lamp illuminating a manger scene in the hallway. It was plugged into the wall adjacent to the closet of Room 406, and it was commonly assumed that that was the cause. Everyone didn’t make it out of that room. The three roommates waited at the window, but two were unable to get enough air, and jumped and were killed.
Oh, and that floor (4 North) won the decoration competition that night.

4. DickH
March 23, 2011 at 5:44 am
Thanks for clarifying those facts. I know it’s still a painful event to recall, but it’s important to remember it as a reminder of why fire safety is so important. That’s one of the effects it’s had on me through the years.

5. Stetson Arnold
May 29, 2011 at 7:29 pm
Does anyone remember one of the girls who died that night named Debbie Smith. She was a wonderful person.

6. Joe S
May 29, 2011 at 8:27 pm
An anniversary remembrance:

7. sally o’neill
August 13, 2011 at 4:42 pm
i just can’t forget about barbara feeney, she was one of the girls that jumped. we played together since we were three. i also went to the anniversary mass in the chapel, i couldn’t catch my breath from crying, it still breaks my heart..your article was very good thank you sally

8. Stetson Arnold
August 21, 2011 at 2:45 pm
Sally, I did not know Barbara Feeney but I did know Debbie Smith. She was a wonderful girl. Most of the girls were freshmen I believe but Debbie was the oldest girl. She was either a junior or a senior

9. Amy
October 19, 2011 at 9:51 pm
How can I contact you? My father was a Providence firefighter at the time and he was the only one to pull out msot of those girls that night but I have a few questions for you.

10. Debbie
December 13, 2011 at 6:10 am
My thoughts and prayers go out to all of the families who lost a daughter, a sister and a friend

11. Denyse
December 14, 2011 at 9:12 pm
Like it was yesterday, every year at this time. Heartfelt remembrance to all who lost those close to them.

12. r andrew
February 9, 2012 at 8:50 pm (Edit)
I remember that night.
I left the library after dark. It was still lightly snowing and I passed a snowball fight in progress as I passed Aquinas Hall on my way to Guzman. It was near Christmas time, and the night air was filled with a mixture of school and home holiday expectations.
The night was the picture of college Christmas joy.
My next memory was waking in my top bunk with my dorm room door being kicked open and the overhead light blaring on. Together with my two roommates we raised-up swearing – until we saw the Friar standing in the middle of our room screaming if there was any women there. There were not and he was gone in a flash to the next room where we heard him scream the same question.
We rose and joined the chaos of the middle of the night confusion and mindless frenzy.
My next memory is standing on the backside of Aquinas in shocked silence along with several hundred other students. The firetrucks were still there with their ladders extended but the horror and bodies were gone. It was post terror. It was uncomprehensible shock. Aquinas girls who I knew floated past still in there nightgowns. Looking at me without seeing.
I look up and see the windows of the girls that jumped. Broken and smokey glass next to windows still decorated with reindeer and santas.
Was does Christmas make tragedy so much worse.
I did not know those girls but I still mourn them like family. I carry them and that night to this day. There is not a Christmas night, especially one on a beautiful night, that I don’t return to that snowball fight, when the laughter of young girls hung in a falling Cristmas snow.

13. DickH
February 9, 2012 at 9:01 pm
Thanks for sharing that memory, as painful as it is.

14. Matt
February 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm
I was there that night. I had just come from a party, getting there just ahead of the fire trucks. I watched 2 if the three girls on the ledge jump as I came up the stairs by Stephen’s hall.
They couldn’t get the trucks close enough because of the cars in the parking lot, so dozens of students pushed the cars out of the way on the snow slicked lot. There was still one girl on the ledge and I remember the fireman scrambling up the ladder as it was extending and swinging around. The ladder slammed into the wall just below the window and the fireman grabbed the girl and threw her down onto the ladder.
A few of us helped anyway we could, my friend Brian and I were feeding hose up the stairs when they brought down two bodies and put them on the ground 5 feet away from us. I will never forget looking over and seeing the still smoldering bodies and thinking “they’re dead, that’s why the just dumped them there, there are still girls alive upstairs” Glass started raining down and the fireman took over for us. I wandered away in a daze.
Later everyone tried to call home because it was originally reported that the fire was in a boys dorm. We listened to PRO, the local station for details, and one of the songs that kept playing was Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” which forever after became known as the fire song to us.
I still see those two girls lying there smouldering, something I will never forget.
I was in Providence this weekend and I thought a lot about the fire, it still effects me.

15. esther
May 18, 2012 at 6:16 pm
I was still in High School, in Massachusetts, when this tragedy happened. If anything good can come of tragedy, it is that the college I attended… NOT PC… Took the hazard of Christmas decorations very seriously because of the fire. I bet they still do. We were kids and thought paper decorations are harmless. Besides, as kids we also thought we would be immune from tragedy. But College knew better and decorations were strictly regulated.
I knit with several Providence women – wives, daughters, and mothers of the firefighters there that night. For some reason we were discussing the fire recently.
As I send my oldest off to college such events rock me to my core now; I was too young then to fully grasp the whole event and its magnitude.

16. DickH
May 18, 2012 at 8:24 pm
Thanks for the comment. Today there was a 3 alarm fire at a building on the UMass Lowell north campus. I think it was an academic building rather than a dorm, but I still immediately thought of the PC fire. Fortunately, no one was hurt today.

17. Penne
July 12, 2012 at 10:20 pm
My cousin Lori Bacon was killed in the fire. Does anyone have any memories of her that they could share?

18. arthur
October 7, 2012 at 3:17 pm
Debbie Smith was a friend of mine. She always had a great smile for everyone. A truly nice person. I can still picture her. A great loss.
She was a Senior.

19. Stetson Arnold
October 19, 2012 at 8:16 am
I will never forget Debbie Smith. I still think of her so often. I can still see her standing there today. That big beautiful smile. That warm and caring person. Such a great loss……but never forgotten. I miss her.

20. Mark Donovan
November 29, 2012 at 7:52 pm
I was there the nite of the fire, and the next morning was taken up to the fourth floor by Battalion Chief Robert (Sully) Sullivan. I’ll never forget how thoroughly the hallway had combusted. If you knew Aquinas Hall, you knew there was a telephone booth sized elevator, one of the old fashioned kinds with the gate that collapsed and then slid open. There were no egress stairways at either end of the halls, that doomed many of the girls with no way to escape. They were added shortly after the fire. One thing that really touched me about Aquinas fourth floor was that there was a parachute hanging from the ceiling, it really must have created a “white snow’ effect, but it burned like a match. Another thing that significantly contributed to the loss of life was that every room door had, in place of a window, a piece of pegboard, the kind you put metal hangers in to hang tools. Once the smoke banked down from the ceiling, it poured into every room on that floor. While at PC I rode with virtually every engine and ladder company, including E12 and L3 on Admiral Street, the first due engine and ladder. A year or so after the fire I was interviewed by the local television station on campus and I was very critical of PC… to the point that I was summoned to the president’s office, who proceeded to yell at and belittle me. Honestly, when it came to graduation, I wasn’t sure that there would be a diploma in the sleeve or if it would be signed. Alas, it was. I went to many fires in Providence, lived at Centredale Fire Station in North Providence for a couple of years following graduation, and to this day, am still active in the fire service. But the Aquinas Hall fire was one that I will never forget.

21. Peggy K
December 12, 2012 at 12:54 pm
My head is swimming with memories of that night today, as it does every year. Family and friends know that for me, Christmas doesn’t really start until after December 13th. And even then, I don’t think the holiday has ever meant the same to me as it did prior to 1977. I lived on 4 North and was one of a very few women who were able to get out of the building on my own. I’ve always said that the stairway that wound around the old elevator saved my life — I couldn’t see anything or breathe at all, and so I would kind of fall down the four or five stairs, feel my way on the landing, then trip or fall down the next set of stairs as they wound around the elevator shaft.
So my thoughts and prayers are with the families of all who died or were forever marked in any way by this tragic event. I can’t believe it’s been 35 years. Blessings to all.

22. Maureen
December 12, 2012 at 7:38 pm
I was a student down the street at Rhode Island College and woke to the horrifying news of the fire at Aquinas, where my sister and her friends lived. My RIC roomates literally took the blankets off their beds, sweaters, gloves, hats and coats out of the closets, piled a station wagon full of warm things and raced over to PC. It is memory that I will never ever forget, waiting in the snow, frantically searching for information about my sister. As I have done every year since, I will honor the women, their friends, classmates, teachers and families, tomorrow at the Memorial Mass at the PC chapel. Alongside my sister’s two daughters, both Providence College students now, we will say their names, remembering, and pray that all who recall that night are blessed with the comfort of knowing we will never forget.

8 Responses to December 13, 1977 fire at Providence College

  1. Adele says:

    Dick, it was 35 years ago today. I was there. Thanks for acknowledging it. PC’s website doesn’t except as an item on the days calendar.

  2. Adele says:

    I’m sorry, Dick, I had to write once more after reading everyone’s comments. I’m 53 years old now and crying as I read them. Part of the reason is that you echo so many of my own sentiments. It’s strange to think that many of us only knew each other for four months, and I still think of them as good friends. But I mark it still as one of the most significant events of my life — up there with my wedding and my children. I was “good friends” with Christine Manual, Donna Galligan and Barbara Feeney though. Donna and Barbara were the girls who jumped and were killed. Christine moved in with my roommates and me second semester. Christine absolutely denied any hair dryer being left on, and indeed, the three of them tried to leave the room, but were forced back by the flames in the hallway when they opened their door. She grabbed a mop from the closet and could see that the wall adjacent to the hallway was smouldering. I knew Kathy Rappucci and of course, Jackie Bothelo, the RA who had left the building, and then returned to help the girls still up there, but perished as well. The long term impact of the fire on the lives of the survivors would make a great study, as so many of us seemed to have suffered with depression, substance abuse, etc. later. But I also know firsthand that this tragedy prevented countless other tragedies. I know because I subsequently worked in College Student Affairs for 25 years, and enacted changes that assured their legacy would not die with them.

    And to Mark Donovan, I’m sorry for what happened to you, but not surprised. On the 15th anniversary of the fire, having heard enough fiction about what caused it, I wrote a letter to the Cowl to offer an alternative (but respectful) recollection of events. I essentially became persona non grata at PC, a designation I’ve come to sadly relish. I salute you for what you did. I will always love Providence though. Anyway, peace to all of you.

  3. Dan says:

    Just wanted to let you folks know, PC still remembers and mourns. We were just over to the chapel a short bit ago- 10 white roses and a burning candle sit in the alcove as I type. And there will be a memorial mass in their honor this weekend as well –
    I can’t even begin to think of what it was like to experience what you folks went through, but just wanted to let you know that those of us on campus keep you and the victims in our thoughts and prayers.

  4. JohnHeine says:

    It seems that I need to make a correction to my story after reading comments from Adele that it was Jackie Bothelo and not Debbie Smith who was the RA at the time. My mistake and my sincerest apologies.

  5. Terry Ryan McEntee says:

    put off reading these emails for a year and a half. My siLaura lived for almost four months in the burn unit at Mass. General. It was horrific what she endured. And my parents lived another 25 years missing her. Thank you all for all your remembrances. It means more than you know to keep the memories of these girls alive.

  6. Daryl Burtnett says:

    Terry, it’s heartbreaking and wonderful to see your comment. I knew Laura, and got to know your father… even met you briefly in the months after the fire and before that saddest Easter. Your father called me early that morning, was so kind.

  7. Tony datollla says:

    Sounds to me that YOU are an ” all about me” type person! You were NOT THERE!!! STOP ACTING AS IF YOU WERE TRYING TO MAKE THIS TERRIBLE EVENT ABOUT YOU!!!! People read between the lines here!

  8. Anonymous says:

    I too was a sophomore 12/13/77, but not at PC. A few close friends were and about 7:20 PM I was on the phone with one sharing
    condolences and a subdued happiness that none of the friends we knew there were hurt. That all changed in the flash of a news report…the plane carrying my schools basketball ( U of Evansville) team had just crashed. No survivors. I was the only person at U.E. from R.I at the time. The headlines the next day ” Schools trade condolences”.

    Adding irony to the story is that 1 member of our team wasn’t on the plane because he was being red-shirted due to an injury. He
    was the lone surviving member of the team. It was with utter disbelief to hear that he and his brother were killed in a car crash over that Christmas break.

    It’s been 39 years….and we still remember and hopefully always will in our hearts.