Local News
12:05 am
Thu March 27, 2014

Two Firefighters Die Battling A Back Bay Blaze Called ‘A Blowtorch’

Credit Boston Fire Department

Just weeks before Boston prepared to observe the first anniversary of the Marathon bombings, tragedy struck again in the Back Bay Wednesday when two firefighters died battling a fast-moving, nine-alarm fire that was fanned by punishing March winds.

Eighteen first responders — 13 of whom were identified as firefighters — were hospitalized with a range of injuries: burns from what the Fire Department described as “a backdraft explosion,” muscular injuries, and broken bones.

Named as dead were Lt. Edward J. Walsh, 43, of West Roxbury, a married man and the father of three children under the age of 10 — two boys and a girl; and Michael R. Kennedy, 33, a Marine Corps veteran of Hyde Park.

Walsh and Kennedy served with Engine 33, located on the corner of Boylston and Hereford Streets, diagonally across from the Prudential Center.

As news of the deaths spread, people of all ages brought bouquets of flowers to the Back Bay firehouse.

'In 30 years I've never seen a fire travel that fast, and it was wind-driven off the Charles.'

Well-wishers who came to mourn the dead and salute the living could see the dozen or so firefighters inside the station house embracing. Not surprisingly for those sharing a moment of grief, the firefighters avoided eye contact with the spectators outside.

In what can only be characterized as a strange coincidence, the International Association of Firefighters (IAF) was in town for a burn conference. At approximately 7:45 p.m., 30 or so IAF members walked over to Engine 33 to salute their fallen comrades and observe a moment of silence.

Fifteen minutes later, several blocks away, city officials gathered to brief the press.

A somber Mayor Martin J. Walsh, performing for the first time his role as the city’s mourner-in-chief, dubbed Walsh and Kennedy “heroes”.

Walsh modestly subordinated his role to senior Fire Department officials, who described the day’s action and tragic events with a restrained, matter-of-fact stoicism.

“In 30 years I’ve never seen a fire travel that fast, and it was wind-driven off the Charles,” said Deputy Chief Joseph Finn.

The wind, said Finn, transformed the blaze into a “blowtorch." Gusts of 45 miles and hour were recorded at Logan Airport.

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley issued a statement bearing witness to the sacrifice of Walsh and Kennedy: “These brave men gave their lives in the line of duty, putting the public safety ahead of their own interests. As a community we come together in this time of loss, offering our support and our prayers.”

The fire was reported at 2:43 p.m. at 298 Beacon St., a four-story brownstone near Exeter Street, which backed onto Storrow Drive, hard by the Charles River.

According to city records, the address had about 8,000 square feet of living space subdivided into apartments, and was assessed at $1.6 million.

A number of residents were trapped in upper stories and were rescued, according to the Fire Department.

Thick clouds of smoke enveloped the historic and architecturally distinguished neighborhood.

Nearby buildings were evacuated. And despite an explosion that rocked the scene, firewalls kept the blaze from spreading.

At the peak of conflagration, at least 150 firefighters were on the scene, as were scores of police and emergency medical personnel.

The fire inflicted havoc on rush hour traffic, closing Storrow Drive for periods and shutting down Beacon Street from Arlington Street to Massachusetts Avenue.

Late into the night, firefighters were still working to ensure that the fire did not reignite in the smoldering rubble.

As a matter of routine, police sealed the fire scene with yellow tape — the classic mark of a crime scene.

Fire Department officials were careful not to rule out the possibility of foul play, but said, nevertheless, that if first impressions were any indication, the fire would be found to have been sparked by routine circumstances.

One of the most tragic locales in Fire Department history sits just blocks away from 298 Beacon St.: The Hotel Vendome apartment complex at 160 Commonwealth Ave. was the scene of a fire which caused the collapse of part of the building, killing nine firefighters on June 17, 1972.

Anne Mostue, James Edwards, Phillip Martin, Jared Bowen, Abbie Ruzicka and Peter Kadzis contributed to this report.