Overflow crowd remembers Worumbo fire

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Faye Brown, a trustee of the Lisbon Falls Library, shows a panel of historical photographs of the Worumbo Mill to a group gathered at the Lisbon Historical Society on Wednesday. The society hosted “Remembering Worumbo,” a commemorative program marking the 25th anniversary of the fire.

LISBON FALLS — Police officer Lt. Dan Michel was just driving into Lisbon Falls in his Volvo police cruiser when he heard the call over his radio.

Firefighter Dan Robitaille was at his apartment in town and ran to the fire department as soon as he heard.

Faye Brown had just come back from a bike ride and was cutting hair at a downtown salon. People were running all over the place, smoke and fire and charred embers falling from the sky.

Worumbo Mill was burning and it was clear from the start that this was going to be a life-changing event.

Lt. Michel was driving back from Lewiston when he heard the call on his radio. Moments later, he crested a hill and he could see it for himself.

“I could see this plume of nasty, black smoke,” Michel said. “And I thought: this is not going to be good.”

It’s been 25 years since fire destroyed the iconic mill in the heart of Lisbon Falls. If you think nobody cares about history, think again. A Lisbon Historical Society program Wednesday night to commemorate the sad event drew so many people, there was not enough room to house them in the society’s small, stuffy room at the back of the MTM Center.

The group grew so large by showtime, they had to move to the gymnasium down the hall. Organizers of the event suspected it would draw interest. They just didn’t realize how much.

“You just never know,” said Dottie Smith, curator of the facility. “This is as big as we’ve ever had.”

And little wonder. Even a quarter century later, memories of the fire are as vivid as they were while the mill still smoldered.

“The fire is still very sharp in my mind,” Michel said.

He recalled getting to the center of town in his cruiser in the early part of the fire. The sky was filled with smoke. People were running everywhere, calling for help, trying to move their cars out of harm’s way.

“They say in police work, it’s 90-percent boredom and 10 percent panic,” Michel said. “On the day of the fire, it was 10-percent panic, I can tell you that. It was bedlam. It was just absolute chaos.”

Some of that chaos is captured in photographs, many taken by Faye Brown, whose father had worked at the mill. She took photos of Worumbo before the fire, during and after. She keeps them in frames and when she showed them to the enthralled group Wednesday night, there were gasps from all over.

Faye eventually ran from the barber shop and stood next to the library to watch the madness unfold. She has a photo snapped from that very spot and even in a still picture, it’s clear that Worumbo was doomed.

“By the time I got there, it was gone,” Brown said. “Everybody was just shattered. The mill meant so much to those of use who were brought up in this town.”

Worumbo was world-renowned for the fabrics it produced. Thousands worked there over many generations. The fire that brought it to an end would be historic in itself. It was one of the largest in Maine history. Historic numbers of firefighters from all over came to battle the blaze.

“The mutual aid that day was amazing,” said Robitaille, who was, at the time, a four-year member of the Lisbon Fire Department.

He remembers calling a dispatcher for help when the fire was just starting to roll.

“He said, ‘who do you want?'” Robitaille recalled. “I said, ‘everybody!'”

All told, 283 firefighters came to battle the blaze at Worumbo. They pumped 15,000 gallons of water a minute — roughly 17.8 million gallons on the first day.

“When we arrived on that first truck,” Robitaille said. “I remember pulling up, looking at the fire and thinking, this is going to be a long day.”

Oil soaked wood just kept burning and burning. Fire crews got the fire under control in five hours, but they were there another 13 hours fighting tenacious flames. And even then, it wasn’t over.

“We went back to Worumbo for 10 days,” said Robitaille, now chief at the Yarmouth Fire Department.

It was 90 degrees on the day of the fire. Firefighters quickly overheated. Groups and individuals got organized, bringing the crews water and baloney sandwiches.

Others scrambled for garden hoses, dousing the sides of nearby buildings to save them from the flames. The Maine Forest Service sent a helicopter and helped battle the fire from above. Those efforts likely saved the legendary Kennebec Fruit Co., which sat directly across the street from the blazing mill.

“Aren’t you glad we had that helicopter?” Robitaille asked of Kennebec Fruit owner Frank Annicetti, who nodded enthusiastically. His business stands in its original form to this day.

But Worumbo was gone. Those in the audience Wednesday night remembered the fire every bit as well as the policemen and firefighters who were there in an official capacity. They remember the impact Worumbo had on the community.

They also remembered good things, like the Worumbo Indians, a semi-pro baseball team that played in the 1930s. One woman recalled one of the mill managers buying her ice cream on hot days.

As devastating as the fire was, the program Wednesday night was not a morose affair. Mostly, it was people sharing memories of a different time. They looked over coats that were manufactured at Worumbo in its heyday. They watched the film “Remembering Worumbo,” which was made during a 1954 visit to the Worumbo Mill by the crew of the old TV show “Truth or Consequences.” Shortly after the Worumbo fire, the then “new” librarian, Diane Nadeau, made the serendipitous discovery of the film which was tucked away in an old closet.

And it was not only local people who were drawn to the anniversary event. Several members of the Moses family, which operated Worumbo in its prime, traveled from across the country to share in the memories.

“Worumbo,” said Richard Moses, grandson to Oliver Moses, “has always been close to my heart.”

Nods all around the room. Today, the community remembers Worumbo Mill in a variety of ways. They have the Chief Worumbo Race at the Moxie Festival. There are T-shirts printed with new slogans each year. There’s the book “The Birth, Being and Burning of Worumbo Mill,” written by Ambra Watkins and including photographs by Bob Greeley. Copies of the book were handed out to those in attendance Wednesday night.

The mill is gone and so are the 25 years that have passed since it burned. But the memories aren’t going anywhere and neither is the legacy.

“The name Worumbo,” Brown said, “will live long past our time.”

Michael Robitaille, a Lisbon firefighter at the time of the Worumbo Mill fire in Lisbon Falls and one of the first responders on the scene, speaks to a group gathered at the Lisbon Historical Society on Wednesday. The society hosted “Remembering Worumbo,” a commemorative program marking the 25th anniversary of the fire.
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