When routine turned to crisis
In the hours before they died, the lives of Edward J. Walsh Jr. and Michael R. Kennedy could not have been any more ordinary. They raced to a false alarm in the Back Bay. They made a supermarket run with two other firefighters to the nearby Shaw to pick up chicken breasts and thighs for their next meal. Kennedy lazed on a black couch in the upstairs TV room playing video games on his phone while haranguing a station mate trying to watch a movie.
There was one notable, though perhaps not unusual, element to the day: the relentless wind, which blew so hard that the firetruck heaved as Walsh and firefighter Dennis Keith waited outside the grocery during the shopping trip.
Over the roar of the truck as it raced down Boylston Street, Eric Evans behind the wheel, Keith called out to Kennedy, what do you want to do? Do you want to grab the hydrant or the pipe? already knew. Kennedy was a go getter. He liked the tough jobs and to be the first guy in the buildi free run 2 ng. That was Keith job that day. He is what is known as the pipe man, who grabs a hose and goes first into the burning building. But Keith was willing to cede to his friend.
know what I want to do, Kennedy replied, grinning. want the pipe. so it was decided. When the truck pulled up to 298 Beacon St., they were in a light mood. There was nothing more than a thin haze of smoke drifting from the building. Some people walked casually out. One man carried two suitcases.
was nothing out of the ordinary, Keith said later. was just, like, a typical fire. hauled a heavy, slack hose up the front steps and into the building. Walsh followed immediately behind. They followed a hallway to stairs and descended.
A firefighter assessment came over the radio: is in the basement. The voice was inflected with a touch of concern. occupants of the fourth floor self evacuated off the fire escape. Keith hauled a hose toward a hydrant some 150 feet away. The hose he carried would feed the truck, which in turn fed the firefighters inside. The truck already carried 750 gallons. But that would be gone in less than six minutes without new water coming from the hydrant. Keith had not yet reached the hydrant to open it and attach the hose and start the flow of water when a woman approached him, frantic.
said, is a basement apartment and someone might be in the basement, Keith recalled. first instinct was to go and see if there was anyone was in there. the pump operator, whose job was to get hoses attached to the fire engine and make sure water flowed to the men inside told Keith to go and leave the hose and he attach it.
take care of it, Keith said Evans told him.
Keith grabbed an axe like crowbar off the truck and ran to the building. He forced his way through two garden level doors into a basement apartment.
went inside and it was like daylight, Keith said. was nothing showing smoke. There was nothing there to say that it was going to be what it turned out to be. continued to look. One room was clear, and another. Then he hit a closed door hot to the touch. There was so much heat, Keith said, and his training told him to leave it shut. Opening a door can release a fireball.
Keith retreated, heading outside to get a hose and alert commanders outside. He was back in less than a minute, he said. By then, everything had changed.
Recordings of radio traffic describe what happened next. A muffled, forceful voice, presumably Walsh or Kennedy, called from the basement. alarm! the voice shouted, calling the dispatch center by its nickname and begging for water in his hose. the line! Charge the line! female dispatcher voice was steady. 33 hydrant, she said, the line. man voice burst through the chatter.
out of the first floor! he yelled on the dispatch recording. out of the first floor! the line! a voice yelled. 33 charge it! came the call that would change the day: Engine 33, a man yelled. Engine 33. Engine 33 mayday. female dispatcher echoed the call, her voice still even, carrying a steely resolve.
33 has a mayday, she said. the basement.
Engine 22 wailed down Dartmouth Street and turned left onto Beacon. Quentin Lee, the engine 49 year old captain, had heard of the mayday call over the radio and now saw the chaotic scene. It had been just minutes since the initial call. A second company had arrived. There was running and shouting, clips of frantic chatter over the radio.
Before his truck even stopped, an order came from a command leader at the scene: Get big line a two and a half i free run 2 nch hose capable of delivering 250 gallons of water per minute to the basement as soon as possible.
Lee and others from his crew piled off the truck, hurriedly donned gear and oxygen masks and hauled the hose toward a door to the basement at the street, calling back to the engine to charge the line with water.
When they reached the building, Lee felt raging heat radiating from the doorway. The crew eased open the door and entered into viscous, tarry smoke. It was so black they could see nothing, not each other, not even fire. And the heat. haven in my career, that I can remember, had that much heat on me, Lee said.
He ordered his men out and to try another attack, up the stairs of the front stoop to the first floor and down to the basement by way of the stairs inside.
want all members out of the building, a man said on the dispatch recording. want all members out of the building immediately. in the basement, Walsh and Kennedy struggled.
is trapped in the basement, a man said. at the front of the building. We got to get the water running. call went for a third alarm.
the line! a man yelled. 33 line now! hoses had all been properly connected, Keith said. A firehose now carried water from the hydrant to the truck. Other companies had attached hoses to Engine 33 and were pumping water. It seemed water was flowing on the line running to Walsh and Kennedy in the basement.
getting hot down here, a man yelled on the radio, according to the audio recordings. 33, I running out of water. I running out of water. female dispatcher held steady and sounded reassuring.
33, she said. going to get you some water. female dispatcher repeated the message.
say they don have any water and free run 2 it getting hot in there, she said. are in the basement heading toward the front of the building. last word from inside the building on the dispatched recorded was muffled and pleading.
in the basement, a man said. and get us. 33, the female free run 2 dispatcher said. coming. echoed the plea across the radio. 33 wants to know if you coming to get them, she said.
A man responded. got companies coming in the front of the basement right now, he said.
Lee, his crew on Engine 22, and other firefighters moved into the first floor, carrying the big hose. They aimed for the stairs straight ahead of them leading to the basement. Some 20 feet inside, Lee and another firefighter had little oxygen left and had to retreat to change. When they went back in and advanced again toward the stairs to the basement, Lee paused. He could feel the temperature soaring. ordering guys to back up because the temperature in the building I can feel it rising and rising and rising, Lee said.