by Michele McPhee | May 27, 2014 4:40 am
The run came in at 2:43 p.m. on March 26, just as a dark cloud of smoke began to rise over the Back Bay. It was a nasty day—16 degrees and with gusts whipping off the Charles River at up to 50 miles per hour. A fire had started on Beacon Street near Exeter and now the wind was pushing the smoke across the neighborhood, darkening the area.
About a half-mile away, the smoke was already visible from the Engine 33/Ladder 15 fire station on Boylston Street. In less gloomy weather, the doors to the station’s bay are kept wide open. The firefighters stand in the apron of the historical 1888 brownstone, acting as civic ambassadors, happy to show off their two fire trucks. Ladder 15 is parked to the left. It’s stocked with battering rams, Jaws of Life, metal and wood saws, and ropes and harnesses used for search and rescue—the tools of “truckies,” as the ladder-company firefighters are known. Engine 33 is on the right, packed with hoses, hydrant wrenches, and HAZMAT gear.
The past 12 months had been long and difficult for Engine 33/Ladder 15. First came the marathon bombings: The explosions were so close the firehouse shook. The firefighters had charged through the screams down Boylston Street, into the hell of severed limbs and bloodied ball bearings. But afterward, not a single man wanted to leave Engine 33/Ladder 15 or take extended time off.
In January came another blow: The house’s senior man, Frankie Flynn, was killed by a fast-moving cancer. Every firehouse needs someone who acts as its father figure, the farsighted beef-quasher whose opinion is the last word. There would never be another Frankie Flynn, but some firefighters began to look to Ed Walsh. The 43-year-old had been with the Boston Fire Department for a decade, and was a master behind-the-scenes fixer.
Mike Kennedy, 33 and in his seventh year on the force, was one of those firefighters who looked to Walsh as a mentor. He admired the way the lieutenant could concentrate on a problem until it was solved. When the alarm sounded at 2:43 p.m. on March 26, they were both on duty.
“Box One-Five-Seven Nine,” a fire-alarm dispatcher transmitted, a code that alerted Engine 33/Ladder 15 that it was go time. By the time she repeated the box number with an address, “Two-Nine-Eight Beacon at Exeter Street,” Walsh, Kennedy, and two more firefighters were already geared up, on the piece, and racing down Hereford. They rode in silence—anything said would be drowned out by the wail of sirens.
Engine 33 was first on the scene at 298 Beacon Street. “We have smoke showing,’’ Walsh transmitted over his radio at 2:45, just two minutes after the alarm rang in the firehouse. “Four-story brick. Smoke showing floor one.”
As Walsh picked up a hose to run it into the basement, Kennedy grabbed the nozzle. In the door they went, hauling a line into the flames.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know the firefighters of Engine 33/Ladder 15. I learned quickly that Walsh and Kennedy lived very different lives.
Walsh was one of the many at Engine 33/Ladder 15 born with firefighting DNA. His father was a longtime Watertown Fire Department lieutenant. Ed graduated from Watertown High in 1989 and then Bridgewater State before going to work at a Brighton assisted-living provider, where he met Kristen. They married and moved to West Roxbury.
Standing at a chiseled 6-foot-4, Walsh was impossible to miss, but he was best known around the neighborhood for running charity golf tournaments and coaching his eight-year-old son Dillon’s baseball team. He loved to walk through the park with his two-year-old son, Griffin, and five-year-old daughter, Morgan.
Around the firehouse kitchen table, the ting of Walsh’s wedding ring was a familiar sound. He had a habit of playing with it absent-mindedly, spinning it on the table as he talked. Then he’d snap it up and peer through it like a periscope. One morning Walsh told his buddy, then a newly engaged firefighter, “Inscribe your wedding date inside the ring. You’ll never forget your anniversary.”
Kennedy was also built like a brick wall—not as tall as Walsh but just as broad. School was never his thing. He couldn’t sit still in a classroom, but had no problem jumping out of an airplane. In 2001 he found his way to the Marines and the front lines in Iraq.
He didn’t have a wife or kids, but he did have a lot of brothers. Brotherhoods, really. There were his BFD brethren, the Marines, and the vets he rode with in a biker club called the American Infidels. Then there was Alex. Kennedy met seven-year-old Alex Beauzile as a Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteer. By the time Alex was 14, he and Kennedy were inseparable.
Only Kennedy wouldn’t use the word brother. “Bro” was his name for everyone and everything. If someone commented on his mohawk, he would correct them. “It’s a bro-hawk, bro.” He would introduce Alex—known to sport a matching brohawk—as his “little bro.”
Pulling the line down into the basement was standard operating procedure. It was Kennedy and Walsh’s job to extinguish what they could at the heart of the fire, so the truckies could look for anyone upstairs.
As Walsh and Kennedy battled the blaze in the basement, firefighters hurled 35-foot ground ladders up the side of the brick to pluck people from windows. Ladder-truck drivers extended their rear-mounted ladders up to the roof, so truckies could climb up and cut ventilation holes. Once the holes opened, they blasted water through with cannons.
Brownstones are notoriously dangerous to fight fires in. Firewalls built to insulate adjacent buildings also act as pressure cookers for building heat. Normally charming details—like original wood and wainscoting and old layers of paint—become accelerants in a fire, sometimes emitting toxic fumes. Originally built in 1899, 298 Beacon had only two entrances: front and rear. There were no side windows to vent or access. Getting to the rear of the building, on Back Street, required running all the way around the block. With no hydrants there, firefighters had to hook their pumps on Exeter and haul them around. All the while, they tried to hold their footing as the spray from fire hoses turned the ground under their feet into a skating rink. The soaked firefighters were freezing.
Following BFD protocol, firefighters vented a first-floor window in the rear of the building. As air rushed in, the fire got a rush of oxygen and backdrafted, exploding through the windows. The flames were growing, and Walsh and Kennedy had become trapped. “Mayday. Engine 33. Engine 33 has a mayday,” the dispatcher transmitted. Surrounded by flames, Walsh and Kennedy were cut off from the exits. There was no way out. And for some reason, they couldn’t get water. Walsh repeatedly called to the outside: “Charge the line. Charge 33’s line now!”
At 2:50 p.m., seven minutes after the initial call, the first chief on the scene, District 4’s Steven Shaffer, ordered the evacuation of all firefighters from the building: “Off the first floor! Everyone off the first floor!”
Eight seconds later came another ferocious blast, an explosion so wicked that it hurled two chiefs off the building’s front stoop. Firefighters on a Back Street fire escape at 296 Beacon Street heard the evacuation order and had begun to move away from the windows just as flames exploded through. The fire set some firefighters’ hair ablaze and lit their gear up. Others keeled over, choked by the black smoke. It was utter mayhem: People screamed in the streets while cops tried to calm neighborhood residents.
BFD commanders ordered third and fourth alarms. Dozens of firefighters surrounded the building, attacking the flames with heavy, cold lines. Then came a demand from one of the chiefs: “All third and fourth alarm companies to the rear of the building…. Try to get 33!”
There was no way to battle through the fire to get to Walsh and Kennedy—even though several firefighters were severely burned trying. Instead, a group of jakes tried to break through barred windows and brick walls at the back of the building. They smashed at the brownstone with Halligan tools, pickaxes, sledgehammers, battering rams. They worked at the window bars with metal saws. But progress was slow.
There were still reports of people trapped on upper-floor fire escapes. Ambulances were feeding oxygen to overcome firefighters. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady solemnly watched the disaster unfold from his own Beacon Street home two doors down. He was photographed standing on his patio, clearly in horrified awe.
Throughout all this, the agonizing high-pitched pings from Walsh’s and Kennedy’s PASS—Personal Alert Safety System—devices alarmed every firefighter in earshot. At 2:53, Walsh, barely audible over the raging fire, transmitted, “Thirty-three is trapped in the basement. I am making my way to the front of the building. I don’t know if my line burnt through, Fire Alarm, but we need water down here.”
Outside, firefighters were horrified to realize that was exactly what had happened. The fire was so hot that Engine 33’s line disintegrated. Thousands of gallons of water had been pumped through, but none made it to the men who so desperately needed it. Instead the severed line flailed wildly, frustratingly, just inside the first-floor hallway. A fifth alarm was called. Then a sixth, seventh, eighth, and, finally, a ninth—the highest Boston fire response available, putting nearly 200 firefighters at the scene. Off-duty Engine 33/Ladder 15 members raced to the fire, some without their bunker gear, some pulling it on as they ran down Beacon Street.
At 2:54 p.m., Walsh transmitted, “You gotta get a line down that stairway. It’s getting hot down here.” Three minutes later, he said, “Are they coming to get us?”
“Engine 33, we are going to get you some water,” the dispatcher, Christine McKenna, tried to reassure him throughout. “They are coming to get you, 33.”
Trying to claw into the building, one firefighter lost most of an ear to burns. Others had fragments of their thick fire gloves singed into their flesh. Many others will require months of painful skin grafts or plastic surgeries.
Deputy Chief Joseph Finn and other fire-department commanders had to physically restrain multiple Engine 33/Ladder 15 firefighters, some wearing street clothes, from going into the burning basement for their brothers. By 3:02 the cause appeared lost. McKenna opened Walsh’s mike and asked for any response from him or Kennedy, but the only audible sound was the roar of the fire.
Even as tragedy unfolded, there was still a massive fire to contend with. Firefighters finally put the blaze out after midnight. In total, 18 of them would require hospitalization.
On tired, throbbing feet, their bunker gear still soaked through, dozens of firefighters—among them my fiancé, who is a firefighter in the Boylston Street house—had walked alongside the ambulances that carried their dead brethren to the city medical examiner’s office on Albany Street.
The entire city was stunned. Even Finn was shocked: “In 30 years, I’ve never seen a fire travel that fast, escalate that quickly, and cause such havoc in such a short period of time.”
By the fourth alarm, BFD officials had called out the city’s arson squad, the Fire Investigations Unit. The Boston Police homicide squad would also be called in.
The next day, when investigators returned to the still-smoldering shell of the brownstone, they focused on a gaping black hole on the side of an old wooden shed beside 296 Beacon Street. Nearby they found a pile of discarded iron and welding rods, a sign that work had recently been done there. The iron appeared to have been spray-painted black—so had a set of iron rails installed over the wooden shed. You can still see today how what looks like fresh paint bled off the metal after being blasted by fire hoses. Investigators believe that a tiny slag from a welder’s torch flew off and lodged under a clapboard in the shed, setting it—and then 298 Beacon—on fire.
Fox 25 soon reported that it had seen surveillance video showing a welding truck parked briefly on Back Street, then leaving the scene moments after a firefighter arrived. Later, in an affidavit, 298 Beacon’s property manager, Franklin Knotts, said he saw a truck loaded with welding equipment in the same spot. When he asked the two men there what they were doing, their reply was welding at 296 Beacon Street.
Soon after, a representative for Oliver Realty, the owner of 296 Beacon, publicly admitted to hiring “a third party to install safety railings,” but insisted that the welding was supposed to be done off-site. The welders had never pulled a permit for the job. If they had, they would have been required to have a firefighter on-site.
In mid-April the owners of 298 Beacon filed a lawsuit against Oliver Realty and a company called D & J Iron Works, Inc., as well as the man alleged to be D & J’s owner, Giuseppe Falcone, 53, of Revere. Falcone’s lawyer responded to the suit by denying that Falcone had performed the welding work, and saying that “D & J Iron Works, Inc. does not exist.” (It’s still unclear whether this distinction is more than a legal technicality. Paperwork filed with the state shows a corporation by that name was dissolved in 2010, though it’s possible the business could exist in a form other than as a corporation. Attempts to reach Falcone were unsuccessful.)
Falcone and D & J are also now being investigated by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. A separate federal probe into D & J is being conducted by the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration. And on April 4, detectives executed a search warrant at the offices of D & J Iron Works in Malden. Investigators also collected footage from CCTV cameras up and down Back Street, including from Tom Brady’s house. Several investigators described to me a video that they believe shows a welder trying to put snow on the shed when it started to smoke. Neither worker, investigators said, called 911. They told investigators their phones were not working and that one of them alerted a building resident to call for help. Several investigative sources with direct knowledge of the case told me that the two workers hired to perform the job were undocumented immigrants.
As of press time, Suffolk County prosecutors seemed unsure of what charges, if any, could be leveled against D & J Iron Works or its owner. “In most cases, the human error does not rise to the level of criminal culpability,” prosecutor Edmond Zabin said at an April 4 press conference. “Massachusetts, unlike many other states, does not have a negligent homicide statute on the books.”
In 2012 Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey found a way around that when he used Massachusetts fire-code laws to secure involuntary manslaughter convictions against two brothers who had rented an illegal apartment to a young family. The apartment had caught fire, killing three. Jason and Andy Huang, as well as Jinny Xue Ma, Jason’s wife, were also convicted on charges of wanton or reckless violation of state building codes and are now serving roughly three years.
State Senator (and former firefighter) Ken Donnelly, of Arlington, said that going forward, legislation could be written to mimic the statutes in states like New York, where criminally negligent homicide is on the books.
Shift change at a firehouse is the most entertaining part of the day, a time when the jakes shoot the shit at the kitchen table and rag on one another. Mike Kennedy usually started it by walking into the kitchen wearing nothing but boxer shorts. When somebody yelled to “put some fucking pants on,” Kennedy would just laugh, or twirl the ends of the porn ’stache he’d recently grown to raise money for charity.
These days the Boylston Street kitchen is a lot less boisterous. Walsh is no longer there to play with his ring, and there will be no more “bro-tein shakes” in the blender. The firefighter who received Walsh’s anniversary advice has since married and now fiddles with his own ring, which, of course, is inscribed with his anniversary date. He just found out his wife is pregnant with their first child. As the mountain of flowers outside Engine 33/Ladder 15’s doors continued to pile high, he sadly remarked to another firefighter, “There were so many things I wanted to ask Eddie about being a dad.”
After the fire, many Boston firefighters felt helpless in their grief. But there was one thing they could do. Kristen Walsh, Ed’s wife, had asked that they recover her husband’s wedding ring from the ashes. She wanted it back for her kids, a token she hoped she could one day use to explain to her son Griffin, too young now to remember his daddy, how brave he had been.
A crew of roughly a dozen firefighters searched through the rubble—finally, after hours of searching, Patty Kenneally Donovan, the first woman appointed to the BFD, found it. Along with District Chief Richard Magee, she went immediately to Watertown’s St. Patrick’s Church, where Walsh was being waked.
With hundreds of people lined up to pay their respects, Kenneally Donovan and Magee came in through the back door. Her face still smudged with soot, Kenneally Donovan hugged Kristen Walsh and handed her the ring.
Kristen slipped it on her finger and cried. She wore it to her husband’s funeral and then again the next day when she went to Mike Kennedy’s. Ed Walsh’s ring may not spin on the firehouse table anymore, but it is far from gone.
Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2014/05/27/back-bay-boston-fire-investigation/
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