Residents of the Starr Street neighborhood heard a loud explosion Friday, and then a series of smaller blasts.
Flames and dark clouds stretched into the sky above J&S Scrap Metal & Recycling Inc. at 36 Starr St., and a pillar of black smoke could be seen from Route 295.
“We had reports upon dispatch of possibly multiple explosions,” Johnston Fire Chief Peter J. Lamb said Tuesday. “It could have been one, and there could have been others while we were responding.”
Two Johnston firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion at the scene, but both have made a full recovery, according to Lamb.
“It sounded like a bomb went off,” said Mary Ann Tooher, who lives at 29 Starr St. “This whole house shook. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then I heard the sirens and the fire trucks. When I looked out, I could see all this horrible black smoke across the street.”
The scrap yard has been at the center of a heated neighborhood dilemma since long before Friday’s fire.
A group of neighbors have complained to the town about an adjoining property, 31 Starr St., where overflow scrap metal has been piling up outside a home under the same ownership as the recycling business.
A petition was circulated. A zoning violation was recorded.
And eventually, the scrap facility’s owner, Jeffrey Cadieux, applied for rezoning of the residential property at 31 Starr St.
Cadieux asked the Johnston Planning Board to change the residentially zoned property to an Industrial plot, but the request has, so far, not been granted.
“I tried to have my house that I purchased rezoned, to give me more space to make it easier to organize,” Cadieux said this week. “I wanted more space, to get the customers out of the street; not to put scrap in the house or anything like that; to make the operation go smoother.”
Since the zoning change has not been granted, Cadieux said he was in the process of clearing the residential property of scrap when the fire erupted on Friday.
Lamb said the fire is “still under investigation,” but appears “accidental in nature.”
“The specific cause is not determined as of now,” Lamb added.
The State Fire Marshall’s Office has joined the investigation, because the scrap yard had been accepting pressurized gas tanks, and the business may face citations for improperly storing them.
“There were multiple compressed gas cylinders in the scrap itself,” Lamb said. “We saw some propane cylinders, acetylene and/or oxygen cylinders; tanks that were obviously under pressure.”
The initial explosion was reported to emergency services around 11:30 a.m. Friday.
“We had some venting, blowing off and igniting,” Lamb explained. “But we did not have any explosions while we were on scene.”
Lamb said the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) had also been looking into the fire.
By late afternoon Tuesday, however, according to Johnston Building Official Ed Civito, the DEM had cleared the operation of wrongdoing.
“Once Jeff clears that other property from any kind of storage, then we will reopen the licensed scrap storage yard,” Civito said. “DEM said they don’t have a problem.”
Lamb said “there are specific regulations” regarding the storage of pressurized tanks, but didn’t want to discuss them further, since the cause of the blaze is still under investigation, and the state Fire Marshall’s Office would be handling any potential citations.
Lamb said the department called in mutual aid from Providence and Cranston, and about 25 firefighters were on the scene to battle the blaze, which took several hours to bring under control.
“We did have a couple firefighters treated for heat exhaustion,” Lamb said. “We called in the City of Providence, for an aerial truck, because we determined the safest thing to do was apply water from above, without putting our personnel into the fires.”
Due to the day’s high temperatures, the department also requested a large air-conditioned truck from the Cranston Fire Department, to use as a “rehab truck” where firefighters could cool down and re-hydrate.
“Fighting this fire was labor intensive,” Lamb said. “Our members were wearing their gear, wearing their airpacks; we had to shorten their work cycle.”
Cadieux said the fire’s origins are a mystery, and that it’s the first blaze at the facility since he took the business over from his mother 16 years ago.
“It was just an accident,” he said. “Don’t know what it could have been. Something popped. Fire started, we put it out as fast as we could.”
Cadieux insisted the business would reopen soon, and he dismissed assertions by neighbors that the business is a neighborhood nuisance.
“It was something minor,” he said. “There were no injuries, no damage to the building. It’s kind of a bad situation; the positive outcome is that it will get more clean, more organized, we’ll implement new rules. We need to get some new staff here that actually want to work.”
Neighbors have complained of scrap piled high, and sprawling across both the scrap yard property and onto the residential property.
“I spend my winters in Florida, and when I came back in May, I have this six-foot picket fence outside my window,” said Tooher, who lives next door to 31 Starr St. “The fence was put up to block the scrap that’s piling up out side. I look out my window and it’s like living in a prison.”
Tooher was one of more than 20 local residents who signed a petition aimed at clearing the site of excess scrap.
“My wife was very scared,” said Tony Palma, who lives nearby at 20 Deluca St. “I was at work. She called me. She was so scared that the house was shaking.”
Palma said Cadieux has his positive traits, but the business has detracted from the residential aspects of the neighborhood.
“The owner’s a wonderful guy, but it’s too messy,” Palma said. “It’s a lot of mess over there. I spend so much money fixing my house, but it’s a mess over there. I don’t have nothing against him. I just wish he would clean it up. It’s too big.”
Cadieux blamed some issues at the facility on staffing shortages caused by the pandemic.
“It’s been difficult with the corona virus per say; people getting paid to stay home to work,” Cadieux said. “Going forward I plan on running a clean ship.”
Cadieux said he provides a valuable service, scrapping metal to keep it out of the landfill. He said his customers have told him they’re upset the operation has been ordered to cease.
“I’m very easy going and understandable,” Cadieux said. “I don’t want to impose on anybody. But I do have to operate a business, like I have for years now.”
Cadieux said he has been informed by Civito that the 31 Starr St. property must be cleared of scrap. Approximately five employees work for J&S Scrap Metal & Recycling Inc.
“It’s a stressful situation,” Cadieux said. “It will take a few days to clean up. However, we are looking to get back open.”
He dismissed complaints by neighbors.
“They don’t work hard like I do every day; they don’t know what it takes to run a scrap metal business,” Cadieux said. “Anybody who has questions or concerns, I would rather they come to me, so I can solve the problem.”
Cadieux said he will no longer accept pressurized gas tanks with loads of scrap, and that he only accepted them in the past as a favor to customers.
“All cylinders have been removed,” he said. “If we get any more, they will be stored in a container and shipped out immediately.”
Though the tanks were a concern during Friday’s blaze, Cadieux doubts they started the fire.
“However, obviously, there’s nothing saying one of those was the cause of this fire; nothing that points toward that,” Cadieux said. “We had blistering heat for how many days? Anything could have happened. The tanks, I prefer them not to be there.” Cadieux said the residential property at 31 Starr St. has been cleared of “98 percent” of the accumulated scrap.
Tooher said she has seen a lot of trucks entering and exiting the area.
“It’s kind of hard to tell, but it looks like there was a lot of activity there,” she said Wednesday. “With this fence, there’s not much I can see.”
Tooher said the scrap metal operation was concerning before Friday, but she and her neighbors have long feared the potential for disaster at the facility. She worried Friday’s fire could have been far worse had other factors contributed.
“Thank goodness it wasn’t windy,” Tooher said. “I believe that fire could have been a lot more dangerous.”
Cadieux insists the explosion and subsequent fire were an isolated incident.
“After 16 years of running (J&S), to have one little accident,” he said. “I think that’s pretty good.”