Fire Department Journal

The Trumbull Street Fire Thirty-Five Years Later

By William Noonan
Fire Fighter

 

Trumbull Street was a very small street located in the South End of Boston, near West Brookline and Tremont Streets.

trumbull_01On the night of October 1, 1964, a passerby spotted a fire on Trumbull Street and pulled Box 1671 located at Shawmut Ave. and West Brookline Street. Fire Alarm transmitted the box at 1232 hours. Engine Co. 3 with Fire Lieut. Steve Fraser in command, and Ladder Co. 3 with Fire Lieut. John Campbell in command, responded from quarters on Harrison Ave. They could see the glow from the fire as they approached the box. The civilian gave them the location and the companies wound their way down the narrow streets to the fire building.

Heavy fire was showing from the upper floors of a vacant four-story factory and Fire Lieut. Campbell reported fire showing and then ordered a Working Fire at 1236 AM. Engine Co. 3 ran a big line into the building and attempted to make the second floor hitting fire as they made their way and they were forced back to the landing on the first floor due to the heavy fire conditions. Ladder Co. 3 started to raise ground ladders. Ladder Co. 3's aerial was thrown to the roof of the 4 story frame building located just to the left of the fire building. All their ladders were thrown except the 40' and 50' ladders.

Ladder Co. 13 raised some of their ladders on the other side of the fire building. They were also making trumbull_02forcible entry into the 4 story building next door as there was a large "loading dock" type door here. Access to the rear of the building was limited to a very small alley only one side, blocked by a fence. When District Fire Chief John McCarthy, District 4, arrived and after a quick sizeup he ordered a second alarm transmitted at 1238 AM. Other lines were being stretched and the fire was extending to exposures on both sides and also to the building in the rear located on West Brookline Street. Deputy Chief Fred Clauss, Division I, arrived and due to the congested area and heavy fire conditions he ordered a 3rd alarm at 1242 AM. District Chief McCarthy ordered Fire Lieut. Campbell to get another ladder and bring it to the rear. The only ladders left were the big 40' and 50 's so they made their way to the rear with the 40' ladder. FF. John Morrissey of Ladder Co 3 remained in front of the building while the other members carried the ladder to the rear.

After a quick size up, Deputy Chief Clauss decided to get all the firefighters out and gave that order to District Chief McCarthy. Deputy Clauss followed a line into the building and gave the order to "get out" to Fire Lieut. Fraser of Engine Co. 3 and then went about his duties to make sure all other companies were getting out. As the fire grew, Deputy Chief Clauss ordered a 4th alarm at 12:45 AM.

Engine Co. 22 was ordered to take a line over Ladder Co. 3's aerial to the roof of the building on the left. Engine Co. 7 was ordered to take a line over a small ladder that was thrown to the roof of the building to the right and operate in the rear. Engine Co. 43 (Working Fire Company) and Engine Co. 21 would follow. They used a 20' to bridge the small alley and enter the building on West Brookline Street. There was heavy fire in the rear showing from the windows on the top floors.

Engine Co. 24, under the command of Fire Lieutenant John McCorkle, was taking a big line over one of the 35' ladders thrown in the front of the building and FF Sheedy of Ladder Co. 4 was preparing to "dog" the other one. Fire Lieut. John Geswell Ladder Co. 26, detailed to Ladder Co. 4, said he would "dog" this ladder. As he was passing FF. Enrici of Engine Co. 24, the pipeman, he cautioned him that his ladder had not been "dogged". Those would be his last words.

trumbull_03Engine Co. 37 had a line and was waiting to take it over the 35' ladder that Fire Lieut. Geswell was "dogging". It was about this time, without any warning the first collapse occurred. Men were knocked from ladders and the balcony fire escapes, other men on the ground were buried and burned. The firefighters from Ladder Co. 3 in the rear of the building heard the loud crash and ran to help. A large cloud of dust was what they saw and men injured. As these men were trying to help another collapse occurred injuring these men. Deputy Chief Clauss was one of the men injured and he yelled to Fire Captain Leo Wisentaner of Ladder Co. 15 "Leo order a 5th alarm and get ambulances!!" The fifth alarm was transmitted at 1254 AM. The top part of the front wall had collapsed on the men and confusion reigned. Firefighters were rushing in to help with the injured At the same time the Boston Police car "4R" at the location was ordering all police ambulances and more police to the location. Deputy Police Supt. Mulloney ordered all Districts to send ambulances to West Canton and Trumbull Streets. Thirty-five years ago City Hospital only had a couple of ambulances; most injured would be transported by Boston Police wagons.

Most of the news photographers knew that the time for photos was over and had started to leave the area. One photographers was walking backwards when the collapse happened. He got a quick photo as the wall was coming down. They then ran back toward the building to capture the rescues and action. This would be "Front page news" for the morning papers.

The men worked to remove the injured and also work on the fire. Assistant Chief John Clougherty had just arrived at the fire, he would soon learn that his son Bobby, a firefighter on Engine Co. 3, was fatally injured. The chief ordered Ladder Co. 3's aerial to be used to dislodge some of the hanging debris to make the area safer. The Assistant Chief Clougherty remained at the fire to make sure all injured members were removed and the fire was under control before he went to the City Hospital to check on the injured men and to identify his son.

Five members died that night. They were: Fire Lieut. John McCorkle, Engine Co. 24; Fire Lieut. John Geswell, Ladder Co. 26, detailed to Ladder Co. 4; FF. Francis Murphy, Engine Co. 24. FF. James Sheedy, Ladder Co. 4 and FF. Robert Clougherty, Engine Co. 3.

Heritage runs deep on this job. Fire Lieutenant McCorkle was the son of the late District Fire Chief William trumbull_04McCorkle who served over forty years with the Boston Fire Department. Fire Lieutenant Geswell was the brother-in-law of FF Martin Pierce, Sr., who at the time was the President of Local 718 IAFF and the father of the present Fire Commissioner. John Geswell Jr. is now an Operator at Boston Fire Alarm. FF Robert Clougherty's father would become Chief of Department. His brother John would become a Deputy Fire Chief. Two other Clougherty brothers continue to serve with the Boston Fire Department-Joseph Clougherty is now Superintendent of Fire Alarm and Charles is Supervisor of Fire Alarm Construction.

Also killed was a civilian, a freelance photographer and "spark". His name was Andy Sheehan and he often sparked at the quarters of Engine Co. 3 and Ladder Co. 3. He had graduated from Cathedral High School a few years before and had become friends with some of the members. He died several hours after being brought into Boston City Hospital and he was 25 years old.

A very large funeral was held for the five members killed at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross ' the South End on 5 October 1964. A large delegation from other fire departments attended. A separate funeral was held that same day in Milton for Andy Sheehan.

The 12 injured firefighters were taken to Boston City Hospital. Some were very seriously injured. Fire Lieut. Steve Fraser retired in 1968 from his injuries and Chief Fred Clauss never fully recovered from his. FF. John Morrissey was promoted to Fire Lieut. in 1970 was assigned to the Training Academy and he retired in 1972.

trumbull_05An investigation was started by the Arson Squad and the Boston Police right after the 2nd alarm was sounded. Witnesses told of seeing two juveniles around the building on the afternoon of the fire. On 6 October 1964 after intense investigation the names of the two boys were found and Detective Stephen Ritterbush, Juvenile Officer, Division 9 Boston Police and Inspector Joe Murray of the Arson Squad visited a Roxbury school where the two boys, ages 11 and 14 were questioned. They admitted being 'in the building that afternoon and left the premises about 1830 hours. They gained entry by climbing a seven foot chain link fence, passing through a parking lot, climbing a three foot fence abutting an alley which led to the rear of 26 Trumbull Street. They were able to climb on debris in the rear to get access to 36 Trumbull Street. They told of large amounts of trash and other materials in the second floor of the building, 'including wooden model airplanes, several squirt cans of model airplane fuel, several cans of castor oil and alcohol with the trade name "TNT" Both boys identified this material as being on the second floor of the fire building. On leaving the building one of the neighbors cautioned the boys "that they better not be stealing anything." The building had been vacant for several years. It had been previously used as a toy factory and other parts were used as storage. It was vacant but not empty.

The older of the two boys admitted that at times he did carry matches with him and that if "anyone had wanted to start a fire there was plenty of stuff around to do if'. Under questioning the boys denied lighting matches that afternoon in the building. Both boys were brought before Judge Robinson of the Boston Juvenile Court and were adjudged delinquent. They were never charged with starting the fire.

The cause of the collapse as given in the official report was the "rapid deterioration of the roof rafters due to the heavy burn and being termite ridden for years". This left little support for the main steel "I" beam, which lead to the collapse of the front walls. The report also states that after further investigation the original mortar had lost some of it's bonding and had deteriorated. From outside observation the wall appeared sound. The report also states that the operations of the fire department did not induce or contribute to the collapse of the wall.

The fire had been burning for a while as the person that pulled the box told investigators that he had smelled smoke in the area for several hours, but he could not locate the source.

The information for this article came from interviews with: The Late Fire Lieut. Christopher "Steve" Fraser, Engine Co. 3, District Fire Chief John Campbell, District 10, retired and the official report by Chief of Department, William A. Terrenzi, issued in January 1965. The following companies that responded to this fire are now out of service: Engine 43, Working Fire Engine, Engine Co. 12, 2nd Alarm, Engine Co. 25, 3rd Alarm, Engine Companies 34 and 40 on 4th Alarm. Also Ladder Companies 3 and 13 which were both due on the first alarm.

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