Firefighters respond to reports of light smoke inside Breakwater Building

Tue, 02/06/2024 - 4:15pm

    ROCKLAND — Local fire departments responded to 91 Camden Street, The Breakwater Building, after a 7:50 a.m., Feb. 6, 9-1-1 call reporting light smoke coming from interior vents on the third floor. On arrival, responding Rockland units confirmed the light smoke; they were also alerted to a smoke detector alarming on the first floor. After a couple of hours at the scene, the believed cause would involve an electrical burning smell coming from one of those power sources that keeps the building in operation.

    Those preliminary complaints – light smoke and smoke detector, along with a report of someone becoming overwhelmed by the smell of fumes – were enough to issue a first alarm assignment, drawing off-duty Rockland firefighters, and Rockport and Camden firefighters to the parking lot along Route 1 where many evacuated people waited in vehicles for the building to reopen.

    One such person was Joe Putzulu, a native of a landlocked state who’d resided in a southern state on the ocean for a lengthy period of time before relocating here, a spot in the U.S. that combined the two aspects of nature most important to him: the mountains and the ocean. Neither one of those, however, were viewable from his car, where he’d parked in anticipation of retrieving items from Jensen’s Pharmacy, on the first floor. Though he made the most of his wait, he soon had misgivings about whether the building would reopen in a timely manner.

    Interior firefighters were drawn to the heating and air conditioning vents inside the offices of the third floor Department of Health and Human Services suites. Yet, they also had their misgivings on whether those vents were the likely origin of the smoke. Heat and air conditioning units within the building are equipped with sensors that should have triggered notifications had they sensed a problem.

    As exterior firefighters debated the need to pull out ladders for outside vent inspections, some groups of people waiting in vehicles reflected on the history of the four-story wooden building that came into existence as a manufacturer of WWII military field jackets. Though the company originated in New York City and kept its general offices there, Alfred Van Baalen and Maurice Heilbrun founded the Camden Street mill and opened it with the help of David Connelly, of Camden.

    Twenty years later, a 1962 article noted that about 200 people worked in the building to produce raincoats, swimwear, and other leisure wear for the Nautica brand. Employee turnover was so slight, according to the article, it was “a minor factor in plant operation.” Many had worked there since the plant opened in 1939.

    The old bones of the structure consist of thick wooden weight-bearing posts. The third floor, where some DHHS officers are housed, was once the stitching room, where, in 1962, approximately 100 women assembled garments.

    The facility was still active in 1989 when a history of Rockland was published in Shore Village Story. However, the business would eventually move to the industrial park, and then leave the state altogether.

    Left behind is a building where hundreds of nooks and crannies may or may not exist in rooms that have been carved out, re-plastered and redesigned many times over the years. And now, instead of active manufacturing, the rooms are alive with active college students, young children, and others. Yet, imaginative minds on the top floor, once the cutting room, might still hear the faint hum of machinery as up to 300 layers of fine textiles could be cut during one operation.


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