Firefighter Michael Kennedy and Lt. Edward Walsh, who were killed in a Back Bay fire Wednesday.

Credit: Boston Fire Department

'30 Years, I've Never Seen A Fire Travel That Fast'

March 27, 2014

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and grim-faced fire officials Wednesday night stood before a phalanx of microphones to fill in the blanks about the lives of the two colleagues who perished in this nine-alarm conflagration: Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy, both of Engine 33.

"Lt. Walsh, I've known for a number of years, very competent fire officer, took his men under his wing and was very hands-on," said Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Finn, who knew both men.

Both men were trapped in the basement.

"It appears they went in with their line," Finn said. "The fire was originated in the basement, they went in with their line and they made their way up the front stairs and then down the interior cellar stairs. Apparently — this will all unfold in the investigation — apparently they went down the interior cellar stairs where the main ball of fire was, and — I'm going to make an assumption here — one of the windows broke out front and drove the fire at them."

As the fire drove toward the two firefighters in the basement, their colleagues from Engine 33 and 15 were rescuing residents living on the upper levels of the Beacon Street brownstone, according to fire officials. Walsh and Kennedy were among the first to respond when the initial alarm was struck at 2:45 p.m.

"I was working on Beacon Street on 320 Beacon, and I left my van parked in front of the building, came out, the fire had started and I could not go from there," said Tim Fallon, a plumber who was working a few doors down. "So it's sitting in front of the building, hopefully still, and I'll get it at some other time … I did not see the flames, I was on the other side, but the smoke was just unbelievable."

But the flames that Fallon had not seen at that point were raging out of control, Finn said, fanned by 45 mile per hour winds sweeping off the Charles River.

'They weren't in the building more then two or three minutes when the ordered a mayday that they were trapped.'

"Thirty years, I've never seen a fire travel that fast, escalate that quickly and create such havoc, and in such a short period of time," Finn said. "The wind was blowing in off the Charles and drove the fire and everything with it, all the products of combustion to the front of the building where Engine 33, to which the two members were assigned, were trying to make headway on the fire which appeared to start in the basement. It was a very fast-moving fire. Weather conditions certainly played a major role in the fire, and once again, I commend the members, as they did save a number of people in this building today."

But Walsh and Kennedy could not save themselves. By the time the call for help went out it, was too late.

"They called a 'mayday,' in a very short period of time," Finn said. "They weren't in the building — and again, the investigation will pan this out — they weren't in the building more then two or three minutes when the ordered a mayday that they were trapped."

Photo Credit: Boston Fire Department

Kennedy’s body was found about a half-hour after the fire began. Walsh’s body remained in the basement hours afterwards, until about 8 p.m., with firefighters unable to access the basement, which was still red-hot with wind-fueled flames. Thirteen firefighters were injured with burns and other injuries — none life threatening. An explosion occurred as the fire progressed over the hours and several firefighters were blown down the stairs of the building. Backdraft may have played a major role.

"That's an assumption on my part," Finn said. "And hopefully, the investigation will iron that out, but again, having some experience and understanding how far heat travels and what comes with the dynamic, that fire was blowing like a blowtorch out the front, from the rear to the front."

Two hours after the fire began, from the Charles River, Massachusetts Avenue Bridge or Storrow Drive, you could see streams of water from fire hoses pouring onto the residence, and the flames slowly and reluctantly dying.

How did this fire begin? It's not yet clear. The building and the area around it is being treated as a crime scene, but Finn said that's not unusual.

"Most sudden deaths are treated as a crime scene," he said. "But I don't believe this is anything other than the accidental death of two firefighters. I don't have any reason to believe there was any criminal intent yet. But that needs to be vetted through the investigation. The only thing suspicious was the rate of travel. The fire developed so quickly. And I think that, again, goes toward the wind."

This was a tragic situation, but it could have been worse if not for firewalls protecting adjacent buildings, said Boston Fire spokesman Steve MacDonald.

"There appeared to be firewalls that prevented the spurt of fire to either side," MacDonald said. "We did have a structural engineer on the scene to advise us as we fought the fire … the building, when all is said and done, is a total loss."

A Firewall is probably the only reason that Peter Weiss, who lives next door, still has a home to return to.

"I'm pretty glad," said Weiss, who was not home when the fire began.

Weiss has a home still, but wasn't allowed to go back there just yet.

"You're basically adjacent to an active fire right now," a police officer told Weiss. "They're not going to let you into your house, sir. The carbon monoxide alone would knock you out."

Weiss and his miniature greyhound dog on a leash both shivered in the wind that pushed temperatures into the teens. With his home blocked by yellow tape, fire trucks and a police officer, Weiss turned around and went back to the hotel where he was staying.

A few feet away, glancing toward the firefighters still on the job late into the night, two neighborhood residents said they had come to this spot because the two fallen firefighters were on their minds.

"I'm so upset," one woman said. "I mean, these poor guys. They're young guys. One of them had three children. It's horrible … These firemen lost their lives saving people."

Firefighters and police officers saluted when Walsh’s body was finally recovered and wheeled out on a gurney — his body wrapped in black cloth. At a press conference held on the corners of Marlborough and Exeter Streets, Mayor Marty Walsh called the men heroes.

"We lost two heroes here today," Walsh said. "It makes me proud to be mayor of the city of Boston after watching the way the men and women of the Boston Fire Department worked today. These two heroes ran into a burning building, got people out of the building."

Moistened by water still seeping from hydrants and hoses, a fireman’s heavy jacket glistened under the glare of TV lights; his face also glistened from the mist that comes with grief.

"It’s a very sad day," said Rich Paris, president of the Boston Firefighters Union. "I knew Michael Kennedy. I was with him last night at the burns convention that's in town. And I knew Eddie Walsh, also. Two great firefighters. And all those firefighters who worked there today, people were saved for their actions at that fire today. Citizens were saved, and that's what we do. We sacrifice our lives for the citizens of the city of Boston. That's what firefighter Michael Kennedy and Lt. Eddie Walsh did today."

This morning, many hours after the fire began, the smell of smoke, like the odor of burnt ash in a fireplace. Still lingered in the air over the Back Bay — a reminder of a tragedy, the beginnings of a cleanup, and the start of an investigation into how this happened and why.

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