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Stonington - One resident remembered the day she had to drive the wrong way down Stonington Borough's one-way streets to get her aunt out of the town. Another recalled people on the sidewalks clutching suitcases and animals in carrying cases "like a group of refugees being evacuated."
Those women were among the residents who gathered at the La Grua Center on Sunday to reflect on the massive fire that destroyed the Monsanto building 10 years ago this week. The center's walls were lined with photographs of the blaze, and resident Gail Woodrow kicked off the discussion by playing a video of the incident. The amateur film was shaky, but clearly showed a factory engulfed in flames, pouring plumes of black smoke over the borough's rooftops. The fire began as the complex was being renovated into the Stoningon Commons project.
After the video, retired Police Chief David Erskine, Borough Fire Chief Jeff Hoadley and Woodrow held a panel discussion to share their memories of the fire.
"Certainly anybody who was here that day will never forget it," said Hoadley. He had been working in Pawcatuck on July 3, 2003, when his wife called and asked what he'd like to do that night, since it was the evening before a holiday.
Before he could answer her, his pager went off and he headed out to respond to multiple calls about a fire in Stonington Borough.
"As I came down Route 1, I kept looking over the horizon and I couldn't see anything," he recalled. "I said to myself, 'It's not so bad.'"
But when he got to town, Hoadley saw smoke billowing from the first and second stories of the Monsanto building. He ordered firefighters to move the ladder trucks to the south of the factory and waited for what 'seemed like an eternity" for mutual aid from nearby fire companies. He stood alone in Cannon Square, praying for help to arrive quickly and noting an "ever-so-slight breeze from the northeast that carried the debris over Stonington Harbor" and not toward the nearby homes.
It was that breeze, said Hoadley, that saved the neighborhood.
Before long, the Monsanto building's five stories collapsed on each other "like a pancake," shaking the ground and dropping bricks on several cars in the area, totaling them. The fire burned through the night, damaging several nearby buildings. Morning was an "unbelievable sight," said the fire chief, and firefighters were still at work when music from the Fourth of July parade started drifting down Water Street.
That fire was "hottest thing I was ever around - it was cooking," said Erskine, who was on the scene with fire chief.
Hoadley knows of only one remaining physical vestige of the 10-year-old fire: a little melted siding on the peak of a house on Main Street. The siding melted even though it was two blocks away from the fire with the wind blowing out over the harbor.
But things could have been much worse without what Hoadley called "a little help from mother nature."
"If there had been a prevailing southwestern wind, borough lives and landscape would have been undoubtedly changed forever," he said.