Massachusetts scrap yard rebuilds after fire tragedy

Massachusetts scrap yard rebuilds after fire tragedy

Fuel catches fire while workers dismantle a car.

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December 18, 2018
Kelly Maile

As a fire raged through R.H. Willson scrap yard in Pepperell, Massachusetts, owner David Willson and his wife Roberta, their son and daughter, workers and two dogs that were rescued at the “last minute" stood together covered in ash, but unharmed.

From the Friday after Thanksgiving into Saturday morning, more than 100 firefighters from across the state battled the eight-alarm blaze that rendered their family auto parts business a “total loss.”

“It was a normal day,” Roberta Willson says. “Employees were in the garage dismantling a car. A newer employee was draining a gas tank. Someone was cutting the car and gas rolled over to that hot spot and started a fire. It was a total accident, but it escalated.”

Workers tried to extinguish the flames but it "happened so fast." Firefighters had to use foam equipment to quench the fire due to a lack of water near the site. The fire engulfed three buildings and the main office.

“It was a very devastating day, but I think it could have been so much worse,” Willson says.

Downtown restaurants delivered pizza and subs to the firefighters and people in the community brought water bottles and coffee, meals and money to the family.

“One woman I don’t even know handed me money,” Willson says. “The fire departments worked so hard. You didn’t see one fireman standing around. The pizza shop downtown made sure everyone had food. The next day, we were trying to clean up and restaurants and people in the community were calling and donating money to us. It lifts your spirits and makes you feel like you’re not alone.”

After the fire, Willson's office was a heap of debris. Her desk, computer, paperwork and a drawing from her grandson was charred. 

Willson has lived in Pepperell since she was 5. David's father opened the junkyard in 1954 and David has worked there since he was a kid. A family friend set up a crowdfunding page calling on the Pepperell community to help the family rebuild.

A worker donated a trailer for Willson to use as an office. Others donated file cabinets and winter boots to employees who lost their gear and tools to the blaze. Willson says she focuses on “one thing at a time” to avoid getting overwhelmed by the loss.

“Everyone is really working together,” she says. “We’re not at 100 percent, but we will rebuild. We work hard. My guys work hard. We’ve got a lot accomplished.”

Almost a month after the fire, the family is close to rebuilding one of the buildings and making improvements to the scrap yard.

“We’re a salvage yard. We have fires,” Willson says. “People who have been with me a long time see them and know we have a system and know what to do. We have a couple newer employees. We learn from our mistakes.”

Willson says it is the community coming together that keeps her moving forward.

“The love of the community is the biggest thing,” Willson says. “We’re going to work hard and rebuild and tweak things and rethink the yard. We have the opportunity now. Bad things happen, but then good things come out of it.”