Boston fire fighters were rocked today by a nine alarm blaze that killed two firefighters and injured 18 fire and police officers in the densely populated Back Bay section of the city. The blaze broke out shortly before 2,45 p.m. today in a nine unit, four-story building on fabled Beacon Street, between Exeter and Fairfax Streets in the city’s blue stocking district of multi-million dollar condominiums and posh brownstones.
According to reports in the Los Angeles Times, the dead were Lt. Edward J. Walsh, of West Roxbury, and firefighter Michael Kennedy. The two dead men were in the basement of the building when they were caught in an explosive backdraft when they apparently ran out of water to fight the blaze. Both men belonged to the Engine 33 crew, one of the first two units to respond to the alarms.
The blaze at 298 Beacon Street snarled traffic across the city for several hours, as firefighting equipment blocked off Beacon Street and forced the closing of the eastbound lanes of Storrow Drive, one of the city’s most important east-west roadways. The Beacon Street fire site backs up on Storrow Drive forcing police to close a portion of the important thoroughfare.
Boston Fire Department (BFD) spokesmen indicated that the fire started in the basement, raced through the building, and broke through the roof just minutes after the blaze was reported. High winds in the area fanned the flames and accelerated the partial collapse of the building. Freezing temperatures from the unseasonably cold spring weather further hampered fire fighting efforts.
More than 150 Boston Fire Department personnel were called to the scene by the nine alarms, the highest number of alarms used in Boston’s system, using up to 20 pieces of firefighting apparatus to knock the blaze down before it could spread to the surrounding buildings. Firefighters were successful at restricting the blaze to the original fire site.
Fighting fires in Boston’s Back Bay is notoriously difficult due to the narrow, congested streets where residents and visitors alike have a propensity for parking in front of fire hydrants and double parking on streets barely wide enough for two cars to pass abreast of each other. Many of the buildings in the area have brick facades but are actually wood-frame structures that are often abutted against each other so that the walls of adjacent buildings are actually touching.
The Beacon Street fire is just the most recent in a series of famous conflagrations that the country’s oldest Fire Department has contended with over the years. The most infamous was the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942 in which 492 people were killed when the popular, overcrowded night club burned down, making it the second worst disaster of its kind after the 1902 Iroquois Theater disaster in Chicago, which claimed the lives of 605 victims. By comparison, New York worst such disaster, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 killed 146, many of whom jumped from the burning in an eerie precursor to the World Trade Center nightmare some 90 years later.
In 9172, nine fire fighters were killed in the collapse of seven-story Hotel Vendome, while fighting a fire in the 1871 landmark building that was in the process of being renovated at the time of the event. Eight firefighters were seriously injured in the collapse, making it the worst loss of life in the Fire Department’s history. The Beacon Street fire site is just nine blocks from the site of the Boston Marathon bombing,
Boston Fire Department representatives have not yet determined whether arson was involved, but the fully occupied $1.5 million building does not fit the profile for an arson prospect. Officials believe that no residents were trapped in the blaze, leaving the two dead and 18 injured personnel the only people affected in the Back Bay brownstone blaze….but the BFD will remember this one for a long time.
By Alan M. Milner