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Burned into memory: Auburn's Dunn & McCarthy fire, 25 years later

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AUBURN — When firefighter Joseph Morabito began his shift at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 19, 1993, the biggest concern on his mind was what he'd have for dinner.

By 7 p.m., though, Morabito found himself fighting the biggest fire of his 28-year career: the one that claimed the former Dunn & McCarthy shoe factory that night.

The numbers can only begin to trace the scale of the five-alarm blaze and the effort to contain it: 67 Auburn firefighters at the scene, 429 volunteers activated or alerted, 3 million gallons of water used. Another set of numbers traces the human cost of the fire: Two businesses destroyed and another four damaged, 706 without power for hours, more than 1,000 without phone service for days.

But, to Morabito, the most important number is zero. Though the fire lasted 10 hours, and at one point spanned a quarter of a mile, no lives were lost. Nor was anyone seriously injured. The only firefighter injuries at the scene were a twisted ankle and minor leg burns. Another three firefighters, from Montezuma, spent a night in the hospital after their responding truck collided with a car, whose driver also sustained non-life-threatening injuries. And that minimum of harm is perhaps why, when Morabito looks back at the fire on the eve of its 25th anniversary, he can appreciate it for what it was:

"It was a spectacular fire," he said.

Morabito, who is now chief of the Auburn Fire Department, shared his story of the Dunn & McCarthy fire Friday in his office. At once vivid and polished, it sounded like a war story, one he's shared many times with both those who were there and those who've only heard the legend. It begins as his evening shift did that Sunday night. An EMT class was scheduled for 6:30 p.m., hence his concern about dinner. But at 6:34 p.m., the alarm came in. So Morabito and Engine No. 4 headed down the Arterial toward the old Dunn & McCarthy shoe factory.

The complex of brick buildings at 41-55 Washington St. had been empty for about three years, according to The Citizen archives.

The factory opened in 1891, giving John Dunn's company access to the nearby Owasco River to power its pioneering use of assembly line techniques in shoe manufacturing. With Charles McCarthy now a partner, Dunn & McCarthy would employ 2,000 people at the turn of the century and become a national name. But as shoe imports increased toward the end of the century, that name suffered. In 1989, the descendants of Fred L. Emerson, who succeeded McCarthy as president, sold its stock in Dunn & McCarthy to a Roanoke company that filed for bankruptcy later that same year. After a failed loan payment the following year, the last order of 40,000 shoes was filled by 50 workers — and one of the biggest factories in Auburn's history closed its doors.

As Morabito and his task force company of 11 other firefighters rode to the scene, they considered Dunn & McCarthy's recent history. Neighborhood children were known to break into the vacant buildings and blow their fire extinguishers. This could have been another false alarm, Morabito remembered thinking. At the same time, though, something told him this alarm was anything but.

The company had just passed Curley's Restaurant when Morabito smelled smoke. Capt. Bob Sloan dismissed it as fog, Morabito said. As they turned from Wall Street to Washington, though, Morabito's suspicion was confirmed. So when the company arrived, it caught a hydrant and started laying hose. The department fought the fire at a disadvantage: One nearby water main had been turned off because of repairs to the Washington Street bridge, whose closure at the time forced Engine No. 3, coming from Clark Street, to go around. And because the firefighters were drawing water from the Owasco River, Morabito said, the city significantly slowed its flow for safety reasons. Still, Morabito isn't sure any more water or access would have changed what was about to happen.

Morabito and five others took hoses into an alley between two factory buildings, where they saw the heaviest smoke.

"It looked like we were getting it," Morabito said.

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Then, Capt. Dan Curry told Morabito to look at the other side of one of those buildings.

The fire went from one to three alarms within a matter of minutes. By 7:25 p.m., it had reached the full five. Every fire department in Cayuga County responded, as well as some from Onondaga and Seneca counties. Hundreds of people lined the nearby streets to catch a glimpse, and it was visible from as far as Union Springs. Some even captured video that has since been uploaded to YouTube.

Knowing the factory was vacant, Auburn Fire made its mission one of containment. Dunn & McCarthy itself was almost immediately a loss. But the blaze also raged across Washington Street, loud as a freight train, Morabito said. It would claim two of the businesses there: Rood Utilities/RCI at 46 Washington and Mack Studio Displays at 42. Behind those two buildings were four more businesses: Coffee Host, Auburn Leathercrafters, Auburn Wire and Jans Laboratory. But because Rood and Mack shielded those four, and because firefighters made Auburn Wire their "last stand," Morabito said, those businesses sustained only smoke, water and window damage. Staff at Auburn Correctional Facility also feared the fire would jump its walls, but the prison went unscathed.

"It gets to a point where this thing is going to burn out sooner or later," Morabito said. "So let's protect what we can protect."

Mack Studio Displays had been on Washington Street for 15 years. Peter Maciulewicz (Mack), who bought out his parents to take ownership of the company two years prior, arrived at the fire at about 7 p.m. The flames had yet to touch his building. So he ran inside to save some things: Two computers — "there was no cloud back then," Mack noted — and his children's Christmas presents. 

Then, all Mack could do was watch as the fire destroyed the design business started by his father, Casimir.

"I knew what was blowing up inside as it happened. It was pretty bad," Mack said. "My father and I could have cried the fire out."

By dawn, aside from a few scattered mounds of smoldering rubble, the Dunn & McCarthy fire had finished doing its catastrophic work. Morabito, who also worked as an investigator for the Auburn Fire Department, said thoughts quickly turned to identifying the cause. A suspected incendiary device was detonated, but it turned out to be an insulator, he said. Then, a comment from a neighbor about the children who broke into the building led Morabito and fellow investigator Ron Quill to interview about 30 from the area. It turned out a few East Middle School students had started a fire in a burn barrel that evening, Morabito continued, but they left thinking it had been extinguished. Regardless, they were brought to family court and received probation, their records sealed due to their age.

For Mack and his company, now known as Mack Studios, the fire led to bigger and better things. He had revised the company's insurance coverage when he bought it. So within days, he was able to find a new location at Auburn's Technology Park and begin ordering new equipment. Within weeks, he was fulfilling contracts again. Since opening, the new Mack Studios has gone from 16 to more than 50 employees, 25,000 to 130,000 square feet. And Mack has made sure that its sprinklers, exits and insurance are every bit as top-of-the-line as its equipment.

Rood Utilities/RCI, a heating contractor established by Merton Rood and Thomas Dean Walsh Sr. in 1951, also recovered. According to his 2004 obituary, Walsh took pride in the fact that his company's payroll was not interrupted by the loss of its building. The company was shipping parts within a week, and is now located on Burkhart Drive, less than a mile from its former location.

Like Mack, Morabito and Auburn Fire also learned from Dunn & McCarthy. The department began training more with others in the area, he said, becoming familiar with their abilities and equipment. Meanwhile, because the fire happened just two months after another suspicious one at the former H.R. Waite Furniture Co., Ron Quill became a full-time investigator, Morabito added.

Less has happened at the site of Dunn & McCarthy itself. Its rubble has been cleaned through the years, allowing overgrowth. This summer, local gym Live It Fitness & Training announced plans to build a 10,000-square-foot facility on the property. Whatever the site's future, though, the fire that tore down the century-old factory there 25 years ago will long burn in Auburn's memory.

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Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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I'm the features editor for The Citizen and auburnpub.com, and have been here since 2006. I also cover local arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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