Fire Department Journal

Dynamite It!

By Paul Christian
Deputy Fire Chief


When the use of dynamite on the fireground is discussed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 or the Great Chicago fire immediately comes to mind. Few are aware that the Boston Fire Department used over two tons of dynamite during a pier fire in 1961. This was one of the most unusual firefighting tactics employed by this Department since the Great Boston Fire of 1872.

On November 30, 1961, Box 735 was transmitted for a pier fire at the Castle Island Terminal in South Boston. The fire burned, mostly uncontrolled, until December 3, 1961; two days and twenty hours after the Box was sounded. The loss was listed as $1,000,000, an astronomical figure in 1961.

The smoke, generated by the creosote soaked planking, was visible for miles and made possible some of the most dramatic fireground photos ever made. The intense smoke also seriously inhibited firefighting operations.

The fire originated underneath one of the many bays of the pier when a cutting crew, using an oxy-acetylene cutting torch ignited the underside. Inadequate first-aid attempts were made to extinguish the fire using buckets of sea water and carbon dioxide extinguishers. Post fire investigation revealed that the time from the first discovery of smoke to the notification of the Fire Department was three minutes. In this short space of time fire and smoke had traveled the full 500 ft length of the pier; the entire substructure of one bay was involved.

Box 735 was struck at 1 :01 PM; by 1:13 PM, a space of twelve minutes, four alarms had been sounded (keep in mind this was the old five alarm system). A total of 25 engine companies, 5 ladder companies, two fireboats, a rescue company and miscellaneous equipment was used to bring under control. In addition, assistance was furnished by the U. S. Navy and the U. S. Coast Guard; commercial tugboats were also pressed into service.

Access holes in the deck surface were used as conditions permitted, some by use of jackhammers, but the severity of the smoke prevented extensive use of the holes. Cellar pipes of every type were used conditions permitting. Fireboat personnel had to wear Chemox masks when operating near the pier. A skirt hung down two feet from the burning underside of the pier and prevented effective use of fireboat guns.

By December 2, it was evident conventional attempts to open the deck surface were ineffective and progress in extinguishment was extremely slow because of fire conditions. The Boston Fire Department SCUBA team had examined the wooden fire walls between piers and had discovered that they had held up but were now in danger of failing. Chief of Department John A. Martin, therefore, decided to resort to the use of dynamite to penetrate the deck surface and attack the seat of the fire. Incidentally, this was the first fireground operation of the newly formed dive team.

The underwriting insurers of the wharf assumed the cost and arrangements made with the Sylvester Ray Contracting Company of Boston to perform the operation.

Blasting began early on December 3 and the effectiveness was quickly apparent. The first blast allowed the escape of flames fifty feet into the air. A total of ten blasts were detonated using a total of 4500 pounds of dynamite. Blasts ranged from 300 to 700 pounds. Following the detonations the seat of the fire was quickly reached and attacked; after nearly three days of constant firefighting the Castle Island Terminal fire was out.


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