Vintage: The Hotel Vendome fire was Boston Fire Department’s deadliest call, US
The Hotel Vendome fire in the United States was the worst fire fighting tragedy in Boston history. Nine fire fighters were killed during the final stages of extinguishing a fire on 17 June 1972. Fifty years later, here is a look back at the devastation. The Hotel Vendome was on the southwest corner of the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and Dartmouth Street, in the Back Bay area of Boston. The building was largely empty the afternoon of Saturday, 17 June 1972, except for a few people performing renovations.
One of the workers discovered that a fire had begun in an enclosed space between the third and fourth floors and at 14h35 rang Box 1571. A working fire was called in at 14h44 and subsequent alarms were rung at 14h46, 15h02 and 15h06. A total of 16 engine companies, five ladder companies, two aerial towers and a heavy rescue company responded.
It took nearly three hours to stop the blaze. Apparatus at the scene included 16 fire engines, five ladders, two aerial towers and one heavy rescue. All apparatus had full crews.
Car 4, District Fire Chief William Doherty, ordered a ‘Working Fire’, which was transmitted at 1444 hours. Engine 26, Ladder 17, Rescue Co., and the Deputy Chief of Division 1 (call sign C-6), responded. This was quickly followed by a Second Alarm, transmitted at 1446 hours. Engines 10, 3, 37, 21, Ladder 8, Aerial Towers 1 & 2 responded. Conditions continued to deteriorate rapidly. Heavy smoke was showing from the upper floors on the west-side (toward Exeter Street) and the fire had extended into an airshaft. C-6, Deputy Fire Chief John O’Mara, ordered a Third Alarm at 1502 hours. Responding were Engines 24, 53, 25, 34, and Ladder 1, plus an extra ladder company, Ladder 4. A Fourth Alarm was transmitted at 1506 hours, with Engines 11, 42, 40, 43 responding, along with the acting Chief of Department, Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Dolan.
Conditions in the upper floors, especially the fifth floor, made firefighting very difficult. Axe and rake duty, opening-up and ventilating operations continued in support of handlines being operated by the engine companies. Two extra engine companies were ordered at 1552 hours, and Engines 32 and 50 responded. During the next half-hour, the relieving evening-tour crews began to arrive at the scene to relieve the day-tour crews. Engine 32 advanced a handline to the fifth floor to assist members of Engine 22 and Ladder 13 operating in the southeast corner of the building, on the Dartmouth Street side. By 1700 hours, overhauling operations were underway throughout the building.
At 1728 hours, without warning, the southeast corner of the building, along Dartmouth Street and the rear alley, collapsed. The collapse crushed the aerial ladder truck of Ladder 15 in the rear alley. Immediately, rescue operations began. Fire Commissioner James H Kelly and Chief of Department George Paul were notified. The Rescue-Pumper Unit (RPU) and the Cambridge Rescue Company were special-called and area hospitals were notified to expect trauma patients. Chief Chaplain Msgr James Keating administered the Last Rites of the Roman Catholic Church to all members upon removal.
The men who were killed were:
Fire fighter Thomas W Beckwith
Fire fighter Joseph F Boucher
Lieutenant Thomas J Carroll
Fire fighter Charles E Dolan
Lieutenant John E Hanbury Jr
Fire fighter John E Jameson
Fire fighter Richard B Magee
Fire fighter Paul J Murphy
Fire fighter Joseph P Saniuk
On Thursday, 22 June 1972, a Funeral Mass was celebrated at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, 1400 Washington Street, South End, for the nine fire fighters. Archbishop Humberto Medeiros was the celebrant.
More than any other event in the three hundred year history of the Boston Fire Department, the Vendome tragedy exemplifies the risk intrinsic to the fire fighting profession and the accompanying courage required in the performance of duty.
Nine fire fighters were killed on that day, eight more injured; eight women widowed, twenty-five children lost their fathers; a shocked city mourned before the sympathetic eyes of the entire nation.
District Fire Chief John P Vahey wrote a comprehensive report on the Vendome Fire. Although the cause of the original fire was not known, the subsequent collapse was attributed to the failure of an overloaded 7-inch (18cm) steel column whose support had been weakened when a new duct had been cut beneath it, triggered by the weight of the fire fighters and their equipment on the upper floors.
On 17 June 1997, the 25th anniversary of the Vendome Fire, a monument was dedicated on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, a few yards from the site of the fire. The monument features a fireman's helmet and coat cast in bronze draped over a low arc of dark granite. An inscription bears the timeline of the fire and the names of the men who died. One faces the site of the fire when reading the names.
After the fire, the Vendome was successfully renovated, hosting 110 residential condominium units and 27 commercial units, including a restaurant.
Sources: City of Boston, Boston Fire History, The Boston Globe