A Town Where Resilience Runs Deep

Vows to rebuild follow burning of one of New England's last successful mills

STEVE DIETRICH, hands jammed in pockets to guard against the cold, stares at a hulk of charred metal and brick, still ablaze a day after an explosion sent flames raging through a century-old brick textile mill here.

''I'm seeing something here that you haven't been able to see since horse and carriage traveled these streets,'' he says, pointing to lights on a hill blocked from view since the massive mill was built in 1867.

There's no question that burning of Malden Mills - one of the last successful textile manufacturers in New England - has overnight changed the economic and actual landscape of this hardscrabble town. But Methuen residents are all-too familiar with such disasters - and what must be done to recover from them.

Mr. Dietrich's nephew offers the kind of determined optimism that has been a hallmark of Methuen's survival since before the Revolutionary War.

''They'll rebuild it,'' says Danny Dietrich, who worked in the mill. ''I look out and I've got all these memories. But they'll rebuild and I'll make new memories.''

That sentiment is as prevalent as the Christmas tree lights draped across every branch in the town's center. Already, mill owner Aaron Feuerstein is vowing to start up the assembly lines and return all of the company's 2,400 employees to work as soon as possible. Some production may resume within a month.

Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R) and Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) and John Kerry (D) have trekked to the site with promises of speedy federal assistance. Union leaders pledge quick unemployment payments and the opportunity of work at nearby plants.

''This is absolutely a blow, but the spirit of the community to bounce back is outstanding,'' says Town Councilwoman Maureen Donovan, as she picks up donated coffee for firefighters at a local eatery.

The necessity of triumphing over hardship goes back to Methuen's colonial roots. The town's earliest settlers lived behind Indian shutters - wooden slats slid in front of windows to guard against flying arrows. There was the end of the textile boom in the 1950s, when the bulk of New England's main industry migrated South, turning an area world-renowned for its woolen cloth into a string of ghost towns.

By the 1970s, mill owner Feuerstein had again elevated the local mill to prominence - as the nation's largest producer of carpet pile fabrics - only to see the recession in the 1980s bankrupt the company.

But again the mill rebounded, this time by specializing in Polartec, a soft, synthetic fleece used in vests, gloves, and coat linings. The increasingly popular material, fashioned from recycled plastic bottles, enabled the company to pay higher-than-usual wages and the largely Hispanic employees to pave a path to the middle class, as the industry did in the past for Irish, Italian, and Armenian immigrants.

Few in the town are ready to give up now. Folks here look out for those in need, says Linda Huttenbach, on her way to Mass to see what she could do. More than 40 communities in two states volunteered time, food, and expertise in the first day after the fire. ''Methuen is a town that will pull together,'' Ms. Huttenbach says.

What caused the fire, which destroyed four of the mill's five buildings, is still unknown. Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show the mill has been inspected and cited for violations several times in the last 15 years. Small fires have broken out at the plant before. Feuerstein and union officials downplay the violations.

Along the icy Spicket River, the talk isn't of blame but rebuilding. Here, in a community whose nearest Christmas tree lot is a minute away in New Hampshire and who claims Robert Frost as a one-time teacher, people like to show off their historic buildings. They speak reverently of Malden Mills.

Danny Dietrich, one of many on-lookers who comes to the site to honor the mill rather than gawk at it, expresses one last thought before hurrying home. ''People were proud to say they worked for Malden Mills.''

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