40 years later: A look back at the PC dorm fire and its impacts

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, marks a somber anniversary in Rhode Island history: It’s been forty years since the Providence College dorm fire.

Ten students died and more than a dozen people were injured, including a firefighter, when a fire started in a closet and spread throughout Aquinas Hall, an all-girls dorm.

Last month, Eyewitness News spoke with two firefighters who were called to the scene and learned how the tragedy changed campus fire codes for the better.

Professor Emeritus Dr. Richard Grace was a history teacher at PC and knew two of the victims who lost their lives in the fire. He said he thinks about them often throughout the year.

When Grace arrived on campus the morning of the fire, he saw “a big black stain on the building, which sort of said ‘death.’”

But, through the flames and smoke, heroes emerged. Firefighters raced into the building to pull students to safety. Grace said one of his students, Susan Cancro, was pulled out of the burning building by Fr. Francis Nealy, a fire department chaplain and a priest at Providence College.

“He came up to Aquinas and went to the fourth floor and he carried Susan out. He saved her life,” Grace said. “When she returned in March, I met her outside the library and we were just chatting about her return and Fr. Nealy came up the walk. She had never seen or met him. So I said, ‘Susan this is Fr. Nealy. This is the man that saved your life.’”

The fire also touched the life of Jackie MacKay, who was the acting director at the school’s counseling center. As soon as she found out, she went to the hospital to meet with families.

The only Rhode Islander killed was 19-year-old Jackie Bothello from Bristol.

“Jackie was a lovely young woman, full of energy and a wonderful resident assistant who was very concerned for her students,” MacKay recalled.

MacKay said that through tragedy, came hope.

“I remember going to one student’s wake and her sister was 16 at the time and said to me, ‘my sister loved Providence College and when I go to school I want to go to PC.’ And she came as a freshman and graduated,” MacKay said.

Providence College President Fr. Brian Shanley was a sophomore at PC at the time of the fire and lived across from Aquinas in Raymond Hall.

“Not a day goes by that I walk past this building and don’t think of it,” he said.

A day after the fire, a Mass was celebrated to bring the community together, according to Fr. Shanley.

“Fr. Peterson, who was president at the time and preached at the mass, I don’t remember what he said but I remember afterwards thinking somehow we’re going to be OK,” he said.

Fr. Shanley, who grew up in Warwick and graduated from Toll Gate High School, said the college has experienced many happy moments since then, but the fire is a dark moment in history he’ll never forget.

“I worry about the day when people won’t be here and don’t actually remember what happened and it will just be a plaque on the door outside, like a piece of old history,” he said. “But for those of us who are still here it’s not old history, but a part of our lives and it will always be a part of my life until the day that I die.”

The fire resulted in new dorm regulations, including improved fire alarm systems in buildings, sprinklers and shorter corridors.