Fire Department Journal

The Paramount Hotel Fire

By William Noonan
Fire Fighter
Fire Investigative Unit

 

Friday evening, January 28, 1966 was one of those bone chilling nights that we get once or twice every winter in Boston. This evening the temperature was in the low teens and the wind was blowing over 40 miles an hour. In some firehouses around Boston, dinner was finished, in others, firefighters still waited to eat. In all of them, the jakes hoped for a quite night. It was simply too cold to face the elements. In 1966, Boston firefighters worked two night tours in a row. Because of the work group schedule, some members would be off the following night and others would be back for the Saturday night tour. This wouId be a night tour that the Boston Fire Department would long remember.

The Explosion

At about 1838 hours, a third floor resident and part-time handyman for the Paramount Hotel, Herb McBride, detected an odor of natural gas in the stairway going down to the first floor. He brought this to the attention of the desk clerk, Mr. Ronald Coyne and Mr. Joseph Elliot, the elevator operator. The desk clerk advised them to notify the manager of Leonardi's bar, which was adjacent to the hotel lobby. Mr. McBride headed that way. Mr. Coyne, the desk clerk then started toward the rear stairs and reached the first landing where the odor was very intense. Aware that something was wrong, he started to retrace his steps to the desk to notify the Boston Gas Company. Before he could reach the desk, the explosion occurred and he found himself in the cellar, as did the elevator operator. Mr. McBride was directly on the sidewalk in front of Leonardi's Bar at that moment.

This area of downtown was known as "the combat zone" because of all the cafes, bars and adult entertainment available. A Friday night would bring out a larger crowd than other nights.

Building Complex

This complex contained several connected buildings: 

  • the Paramount Hotel was an 11 story, first class building

  • the Plymouth Hotel, an 8 story building with smaller buildings connected

  • 21 Boylston St., Chartells Coffee Shop

  • 19 Boylston St., Leonardi's Café

  • 17 Boylston St., the lobby for the Paramount Hotel

  • 15 Boylston St., Plymouth Hotel lobby

  • 13 Boylston St., The Gilded Cage, (a Café) 

At that time, all of these buildings were 50 years old.

Emergency Response

At 1838 hours, Boston Police Officers, George Ruck and William Crosby heard a loud explosion as they were patrolling the area in the "200 Wagon". They alerted the dispatcher that an explosion had occurred at the Paramount Hotel Bar and Grille located at 17-19 Boylston Street. All available personnel were dispatched. Boston Police notified the Fire Alarm Office and companies were on their way.

At 1840 hours, Engine Co. 7 and Ladder Co. 17 were "stilled" to 17 Boylston Street and Box 1471 (Washington and Essex Streets) was transmitted by Fire Alarm. Engine Co. 26, Engine Co. 10 and Ladder Co. 8 with the Rescue Co., Deputy Chief John O'Mara of Division 1, District Chief Galvin of District 4 and Acting District Chief Feeney in District 3 all responded on the first alarm. As the Deputy was responding, he may have said to his Aide, John Donovan," I'm glad I have those heavy socks on in case this turns out to be something." They did not have to wait long to find out. Engine Co. 7 reported they were off at Box 1471 and "we have something but I don't know what!"

With smoke, haze and dust they didn't know what they had. Captain Charlie Griffin ordered a big line started as fire could be seen inside the building. People were in the street screaming and others could be seen at windows on the upper floors. The fire in the rear intensified and started to spread to the upper floors and toward the front. Gas could be smelled in the street as the companies arrived. At 1845 hrs Deputy Chief O'Mara ordered a 2nd alarm and ambulances. Engine Cos 25, 3,39 and 8 responded along with Ladder Cos. 3 and 18.

The explosion had blown out part of the first floor walls and the sidewalk was now in the basement. By now, there was heavy fire and smoke showing. People were at windows on the upper floors calling for help and one person was hanging over the balcony unconscious. Deputy Fire Chief O'Mara wasted no time in ordering alarms; 3rd alarm at 1846 hours with Engine Cos 24, 37, 22 and 50 and Ladder Co. 15 responding. Ladder Cos 15 and 18 responded down Boylston Street from Tremont and were able to throw their sticks to the front of the building. Ladder Co. 3 came up Washington Street and had to leave the piece on Washington Street. The 4th alarm at 1847 hours with Engine Cos 42, 34, 2 and 32 responding. At 1848 hours he ordered the 5th alarm and Engines Cos 53, 40, 56 and 20 responded. The High Pressure was raised to 175 lbs at 1958 hours.

Chief of Department William Terrenzi arrived at the fire at 1900 hours and he ordered Assistant Chiefs Clougherty and Howard to respond and also Deputy Fire Chief Flanagan all from home. At 1910 hours he requested the Building Department and Building Commissioner York was notified.

Engine Co. 26 ran a big line to the front of the building and started to hit the fire in the front while Engine Co. 7 was doing the same. Ladder Co. 17 was throwing a 35' ladder to the extreme right side of the balcony level next to the Paramount Hotel sign. Ten occupants of the hotel who would escape safely used this ladder. The chauffeur was getting the big Seagrave 100' aerial up as there were people waiting in the windows. As these companies were arriving the police were removing a victim. As the Ladder Companies arrived they were ordered to get ground ladders as the trucks could not get close enough. Engine Co. 7 had let Ladder Co. 17 get the front of the building. Companies were able to get into the small alley that ran on the "exposure 2" side, known as Bumstead Court. This gave access to this side of the building and ground ladders were used. The cold temperatures would turn the water from the hoses into ice almost at once. Extra manpower was needed with the ground ladders due to ice.

After the 5th alarm was ordered, Deputy Fire Chief O'Mara ordered the Edison and Gas companies to respond. At 1859, he ordered the Gas Company again but said, "urgent." 

One of the most spectacular rescues ever witnessed happened at this fire. A woman was seen in the basement area, as the sidewalk was blow away. Heavy fire was showing in this area. Firefighter Bill Shea of the Rescue Company jumped into the basement with total disregard for his safety. The woman was unconscious and pinned by a beam, only her head was out of the water. She was not only in danger of being burned but also drowning. He managed to get the woman up, and with the help of other firefighters a ladder was dropped into the basement and Firefighter Shea brought this person to safety. Firefighter Shea was burned about the ears and hands and was transported to a hospital and would remain off duty for weeks. He was awarded the "John Fitzgerald Medal" for most meritorious act of 1966.

The fire extended from the basement to the upper floors via the elevator shaft. Companies had to be aware of heavy concentrations of natural gas. As the fire was darkening down in some areas, firefighters were assigned to search various parts of the building and ladders were used to get to the upper parts of the building.

Lines were taken off standpipes in the building on the exposure 2 side and used from the upper floors to hit some of the fire in the Paramount Hotel that could not be reached from the street. The narrow width of Bumstead Court and debris in the street prevented Ladder Co. 15 from turning in on their arrival.

Boston City hospital received 19 victims and 21 victims were sent to Massachusetts General Hospital. A total of 57 people were injured. The Medical Examiner worked through the night to identify the victims. It would take several days before all of the dead would be identified. The Boston Police used police wagons to transport most of the injured there were only a few ambulances at Boston City Hospital; they did not have the excellent EMS services that are around today. Over 40 Police Ambulances were at the fire. By morning the death toll stood at 10; an 11th person died a few days later.

Throughout the evening extra companies were special called; they included Engine Cos 51, 55 ,43, 21, 5, 16 and 17 and Ladder Cos. 30, 23 and 14. Ladder Co. 14 came in Avery Street and into Bumstead Court to the rear of the Paramount and threw their stick to the upper floors. They were the only truck to make it to the rear. Some fire companies were at the scene most of the night.

Because large plate glass windows were blown out around the fire site, there was plenty of police work. Police spotted 3 men looting stores opposite the fire building and they were arrested. Police had to watch for this as well as crowd control and rescue activities. The Boston Police had over 140 officers at the fire including 40 from the "Tactical Police Squad." All officers were under the command of Police Commissioner Edmund McNamara.
 
Governor Volpe offered state assistance after he visited the scene and Mayor Collins issued the statement, "The magnificent courage of the firefighters, police and other city workers earned our gratitude," after he visited the scene and was escorted by Chief of Department William Terrenzi.The chief remained on the scene throughout the entire night until the early morning hours.

At 2310 hours Chief Terrenzi called for a fire detail that consisted of Engine Companies 9, 33, 49, and 52 and Ladder Companies 16 and 22. A fire detail continued until the early morning hours on January 30th. At this time the building was turned over to the Building Department.

On the early morning of February 2, 1966, 6 people remained in Boston City Hospital and 4 of the dead were still unidentified. Most of these were burned so bad that identification would be difficult. Also further searches in the building were called off, as the stability of parts of the building was in question. The Building Commissioner, Mr. York called for a company to come in and "shore up" parts of it that were in danger of collapsing.

Several restaurants and other establishments in the area had to remain closed due to the shattered windows and other damage that was caused by the explosion. The Red Cross served over 500 meals at the fire Friday night and into Saturday morning.

Investigations

Investigations were started immediately. An Inspector from the Boston Fire Department Arson Squad was assigned to this fire as his only assignment. Interrogation of all occupants, the injured, known incendiarists, the trustees for the owner's etc. was begun by the Fire Department. The Boston Police, Gas Company, and Edison all started investigations. The District Attorney's Office of Suffolk County became involved. A demolition company was contracted to assist in the investigation. The street and remains of the sidewalk had to be dug up. Boylston Street, in this area, would be closed for days. A known "arsonist" was in the area that night with his girlfriend and spotted at the scene. He was questioned at great length but was not a suspect in this fire. The Arson Squad considered him a suspect for several fires in the South End.

Public Safety Report

On February 15, 1966 the Department of Public Safety issued a report that after careful examination they found a circumferential crack in a 8" gas main. This crack was located in close proximity to two electric service conduits, which supplied energy to the Paramount Hotel through the front wall of the areaway under the front sidewalk.

It was determined that the initial explosion and flame propagation was of sufficient force and intensity to blow off the metal latticed-worked elevators on every floor leaving them resting or laying in the passageway connecting all areas of every floor. This allowed the fire to travel up and "mushroom" at the roof level and extend into each floor. All residents and/or occupants of the building above the 2nd floor managed to escape or were rescued with the exception of a fatality on the 10th floor who apparently had sufficient time to evacuate the building but failed to do so. He was in conversation with other residents and was not in any difficulty at that time. The Fire Department was unaware of his presence and the logical search sequence permitted sufficient time to elapse so that the extending top floor fire enveloped his room and forced him into the top floor passageway where he was found by firefighters and removed. Two bodies were found in the basement and the rest were found at the street level at the bar and one at the 2nd floor level.

Conclusions

The conclusions after all the investigations were that a gaseous vapor had entered the elevator shaft and must have mixed in proportions within the explosion limits for the dislocation of every elevator door on every floor. The initial explosion occurred in the main basement in the middle of the building as the cross members were bent upward on the underside of the street level and downward on the floor of the basement level. Some beams were sheared off which permitted the street level flooring to drop into the basement. It is possible the gas was ignited from the action of the elevator motors. As there was no gas odor the day before it seems evident that the crack must have occurred sometime just before the explosion. The final control of the fire did not occur until the 8-inch gas main was totally shut down.

Boston Municipal Court Ruling

Chief Justice Elijah Adlow of the Boston Municipal Court ruled, as a result of an inquest, that the evidence indicated the explosion was caused by gas leaking from an 8-inch main in Boylston Street and seeping into the basement of the Paramount Hotel. Judge Adlow added, "The lesson of this disaster will be lost if no program is inaugurated to reduce materially the hazards which are involved in the distribution of gas." He also said, "Our fire departments should master the technique of turning off supplies of gas in threatened areas and should not be dependent on the personnel of the gas companies for this service." Judge Adlow said it was not until 2010 hours that the last of four valves controlling gas flow into the explosion area were closed. He concluded in his report that "no further legal proceedings be pursued" in view of the lack of any violations of law connected with the blast.

Special Commendation

A Special Commendation was issued to members of the Boston Fire Department. "The Fire Commissioner wishes to highly commend the personnel of this department who responded to and worked at Box 1471, Five Alarms, on the evening of January 28, 1966. The adverse conditions that confronted the department at this explosion and fire required a devotion to duty and stamina, courage and perseverance of a high power. Sincere gratitude is extended to those who once more have lived up to the highest traditions of the Boston Fire Department." Thomas J.Griffin, Fire Commissioner


Information for this article was gathered from, "Official Report, Boston Fire Department," "Box 52" Newsletter, various Boston and local newspapers from the Micro-text Section, Boston Public Library, Copley Square. 

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