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.

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

  1. Linda Orcutt says:

    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.

  2. PC1977 says:

    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.

  3. DickH says:

    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.

  4. Stetson Arnold says:

    Does anyone remember one of the girls who died that night named Debbie Smith. She was a wonderful person.

  5. sally o'neill says:

    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

  6. Stetson Arnold says:

    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

  7. Amy says:

    DickH,
    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.

  8. Debbie says:

    My thoughts and prayers go out to all of the families who lost a daughter, a sister and a friend

  9. Denyse says:

    Like it was yesterday, every year at this time. Heartfelt remembrance to all who lost those close to them.

  10. r andrew says:

    I remember that night.

    I left the library after dark. It was still lighly 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.

  11. Matt says:

    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.

  12. esther says:

    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.

  13. DickH says:

    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.

  14. Penne says:

    My cousin Lori Bacon was killed in the fire. Does anyone have any memories of her that they could share?

  15. arthur says:

    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.

  16. Stetson Arnold says:

    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.

  17. Mark Donovan says:

    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.

  18. Peggy K says:

    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.

  19. Maureen says:

    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.

  20. JohnHeine says:

    I was a junior living off campus that day and remember it to this day as everyone else does who was there at the time. I was asleep and my roommate woke me up screaming that there was a fire. I’ve never seen anyone turned that white in fear in my life before or since.. We turned on the TV and radio and called anyone we could think of but information was sketchy at that time in the morning. We couldn’t sleep after that and stayed up till daylight came. We walked up to campus and it was and absolute surreal experience. You would see friends consoling each other but for the most part we were all just staring at each other speechless; practically looking through each other. It took us a while to actually walk over to the back of Aquinas and see the damage. We just kept walking around in a daze until mass that day. I can’t remember now exactly what Father Peterson said in his homily that day but I do remember that it consisted of the most inspiring, uplifting, soothing, and comforting words I have ever heard in my life. It was something that we all needed at the time and something I will never forget.
    (To Stetson Arnold, I believe that Debbie Smith was the RA at the time and that her actions that night were nothing less than heroic. I believe that she was responsible for saving many of the girls before she succumbed to the smoke.)
    It has now been 35 years (hard to believe) and those 10 girls have been in my memory all the time but especially on this day. For those of you who may not know, and I have no ties to this other tragedy at all, on that very same day in the evening 29 people, which included the University of Evansville basketball team, died on a plane crash while returning from an away game. Like I said I went to Providence and was there at the time and have no ties to Evansville at all but I cannot think of one without thinking of the other. My thoughts today are with all 39 of those lost in those two tragedies that day.

  21. Stetson Arnold says:

    To John Heine. Thank you for sharing your memory of that night and also for sharing your memory of Debbie Smith. Did you know her John?

  22. greg says:

    Debbie was not the RA, Jackie Botelho was … I know … and I was with most the girls that night, dressed up as St. Nick as they did secret santa that night … hours before the fire – I was junior living in Stephen Hall at that time.

  23. Kazy says:

    I’ve been living about 200 yards from the main entrance to PC for about 30 years. Few days ago I walked my dog through the campus and I found commemorative plaque on the wall of Aquinas Hall dedicated to ten girls (it includes very nice inscription). I thought that children of those girls could’ve been studing today at PC or they could’ve been graduates already. As the Scripture says: We don’t know day or hour when We’ll be called to eternal life. Every day of life is a gift.
    They rest in peace now. We shall meet them in the House of Lord.

  24. John Heine says:

    The last time I posted here was the 35th Anniversary of the fire , which put me in a somber state for the evening. Little did I know that a mere 12 hours later the tragedy in Newtown Ct. would occur. My heart still goes out to them and we all know all too well here that the memory and pain never really go away.
    To Greg, your right. I realized my error after I posted. It was Jackie who was the RA. I believe Deborah Smith was from Milford Ct. where another friend of mine, who was a sophmore at the time in Megher, was from. I knew her but not well but my friend knew her very well.
    I sit here now as the Blizzard Nemo (they have names now) approaches almost 35 years to the day of the Blizzard of ’78. I know from that event many of us have crazy fun memories of the campus that week.
    That was one memorable school year for sure. Hope everyone is well. John

  25. Dave says:

    I am one of the Security officers who responded to the fire that evening. I was there at age 20. I live with that memory everyday. I pray everyday when I pass Aquinas hall where the names are listed on the building. As I continue to work at Providence College this is one memory and experience we all could have done without. God Bless the the families and the victims of that teribble evening. Thank you for the opportunity to vent and we pray that time heals all God Bless

  26. Hayley says:

    Debbie smith was my dads sister and I never got to meet her. It was amazing to read about her here and it makes me proud to be related to such a wonderful person. Thank you all for that.

  27. Jane says:

    I was a senior and a “commuter” student at the time of the fire. Debbie Smith and I had one class together. She was a very warm, kind person. I left the library that night and participated in that “first snow” snowball fight before heading home, about a mile away. A few hours later, the phone started ringing. Like so many others, I went to campus and stood at the back of Aquinas. It was surreal. To this day, the smell of wet firewood brings me back to the charred wood of that building, doused with firefighters’ hoses and light snow flurries. In the days that followed, three other local seniors and I went to six wakes/funerals, including Debbie’s. We visited the families of the women in the hospital, offering to help in any way that we could, but there was nothing we could do but keep them company. I’ve lived 400 miles away from campus since graduation, but there’s not a December that has gone by since 1977 that I don’t think of those women and what might have been. When my own daughter went to college, I was fanatic about smoke detectors and escape routes. I remember all those families every year on this fateful anniversary.

  28. rosem says:

    I was a sophomore at pc in 1977 I knew Debbie smith and her roommate. I attended Laura smiths funeral with Debbie’s roommate. And with all due respect who cares who won the contest that night! When 10 young women perished!

  29. Stetson Arnold says:

    Hayley, Your dads sister was a wonderful person. You should be proud. Dont ever forget her. She had a heart of gold and was one of the kindest and sweetest persons I have ever met. So warm and caring.

  30. Elaine Goulet McGillicuddy says:

    I spent five summers doing Religious Studies at Providence College as Sister Maureen, an Ursuline nun first, in 1966, then as Elaine Goulet in 1970, the year I left the convent. During that summer the resigned priest I would marry in 1972 wrote me love letters while I was living there.

    I could have been in such a fire, which happened only seven years later.

  31. Kathy says:

    Every December 13 brings painful memories and the day always seems to go badly.. Last year, I thought I got through the day fairly well and the Sandy Hook shootings happened the next day. I lived on Aquinas 2nd floor at the time and have vivid memories of girls who had run through the fire at the base of the stairs.

    While our community was clearly shaken, I remain so proud to this day of how the college handled the tragedy. How many College Presidents would have moved out of their houses onto the floor and RA suite where young women died? I remember Father Peterson asking for girls to volunteer to return to that floor following Christmas break and that he could ask them to do so if he himself didn’t. Father Peterson lived on that floor for the spring 1978 semester.

  32. Mary W. says:

    Haley,- I grew up with your Aunt Debbie and will never forget that dreadful day. I can remember coming home from work for lunch seeing both of my parents in tears; waiting to tell me what happened. She was a good friend and we had great times together growing up. I think of her often. Cherish whatever memories that people share with you.

  33. Stetson Arnold says:

    There’s a love I hold dear.
    And it shines through each year
    And it makes things seem different somehow
    It’s for better or worse
    It’s for people who thirst
    For a love that burns brighter right now

    And it shines on and on ’til all sadness is gone
    And if children had wings I would sing them this song
    With a smile on my face and a tear in my eye
    Everything will be fine by and by

    For Debbie Smith

  34. Brian says:

    I knew Gretchen Ludwig we grew up together on the same street right across from each other. She was a year older and she lite up everywhere she went. All these years later
    that morning haunts me still. I never got over it all these years later. But I know she watches over me in her special spirit.

  35. Gail Corso Rossi says:

    My son needed to interview me for a H.S. English assignment last night, about a major event in my life. I told him I could not think of anything and he should call his grandpa as he has so many memories of his past. My son said how about that fire when you were in college you told us about. I related my memories of that time as well as I could remember. I decided to google the fire and came upon this page. I was a senior at PC at the time of the fire. I lived in one of the houses with three other PC girls that students would rent in walking distance from the school. We did not hear about the fire until early that morning when a high school friend called me as she had heard it on the radio. Like all of us there was of a sense of great sadness and disbelief. I remember that one of the girls that died and one that survived but that was seriously burned had been on an intramural softball team that my, then, boyfriend coached at PC. I remember meeting them and I am almost sure they were freshmen. To this day the one that died I can still see before me. I can’t remember her name though. Does any one remember who were the girls that jumped out the window to try to escape the flames and which one survived? Also were they the girls in the room where the fire started? I am so consumed with memories right now. Just a thought, but I would have thought that Debbi Smith would have been the RA as she was a senior and Katy was a freshman but this is only surmising. I would love to see pictures of those 10 lovely women so I can remember these saints who are now in heaven. If anyone knows of how to see a newspaper story from that day please post. May their souls, rest in peace. Their parents must be old or gone by now but their daughters were never erased from their hearts.

  36. Shirley says:

    Yes, Jackie Botelho was the RA. She was friend of mine from Bristol and we were pop warner cheerleaders together. Jackie loved cheering so much she went on to be a cheerleader for PC.

    I was in nursing school at CCRI at the time of the fire and remember driving to school and hearing about the fire on the radio news and the death of my old friend. Terrible terrible loss for the families and friends of those young students.

  37. Tom says:

    I graduated from Providence a few years ago and lived on the 3rd floor my sophomore year. I just read some of your stories from that horrific night and was trying to picture Aquinas as it was back then. The current Aquinas has a main staircase/elevator in the middle area that seperates the two sides (one side being the girls side, the other now being the guys side). On both sides now, there are two other stair cases, one at the far end of the hall along the tip of the “L” and the other at the bend of the “L”. I’m assuming both staircases were put in after the fire.

  38. M Whitt- says:

    Stetson Arnold…. Debbie Smith was a Senior at PC from Milford, CT. She grew up on Dock rd, near Gulf Beach here in Milford. Her family still lives there and her brother Bob is a local contractor.. What a tragedy, even today I say a prayer for the innocent lives lost…. Is there a memorial scholarship set up at PC in Debbie’s name?

Leave a Reply