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A Shared History
by Bruce Hensler

The fires of November

Historically, November has been especially tragic; yet out of the large fires has come positive changes

By Bruce Hensler

Is it the transitional nature of November, the necessary acclimation of humans to cold, dry air, and wintery winds signaling the need for heating buildings in the northern latitudes? Or is it the distractions of the approaching holidays?

While every month has its dubious list of large and deadly fires, for some unknown reason the eleventh month has more than its fair share of notable fires, especially in Massachusetts.

Of the plentiful November fires, some are notable and historic, including the Great Boston Fire of 1872, the Great Lynn Fire of 1889, the 1942 Luongo Restaurant and Coconut Grove fires in Boston, and the Lynn Conflagration of 1981. Another historic fatal November fire, though not in the Bay State, was the tragic 1980 MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas that claimed more than 80 lives.

Boston is burning
The Great Boston Fire of 1872 is one of the most significant events in U.S. fire history because it brought recognition to the need for organized public fire protection, adequate water supply for fighting urban fires, and the role of construction methods in building codes. The deplorable state of affairs in Boston encompassed fire-prone buildings, laid out among narrow streets and a poor municipal water supply system.

Those facts and a history of previous smaller conflagrations forced some fire insurance underwriters to refuse to write fire insurance policies for property owners.

Another major impediment that November evening was that the city's fire horses were out of service due to illness, thus forcing the department to rely fully on men to move fire apparatus. A large steam fire engine could weigh in at 6 tons.

Though considered a paid fire department, the city in that year had only full-time drivers and engineers. The city that Saturday evening was also fortunate to have on the payroll Chief Engineer John S. Damrell. He would send a telegraph to cities and towns within 50 miles asking for firefighting assistance, as well as to the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, N.H. requesting steam engine mechanics and spare parts.

Chief Damrell
A builder by trade, the Chief Damrell knew the buildings of his city and the inherent vulnerabilities of ordinary construction, wooden door and window frames, wood-shingle roofs, and Mansard-style architecture. And, as a good fireman, he knew the lay out of the street grid.

He had the foresight during the fire to have the water department shut off lines feeding outlying areas to maximize available water flow and pressure from the feeble public water system. He wanted an adequate fire flow from the hydrant system in order for his firemen to concentrate their efforts at a wide street where he hoped they could stop the great fire from spreading.

Eventually, Boston and its neighboring environs would have 2,380 firemen engaged in the 17-hour firefight, organized in 68 engine companies, 63 hose companies, and 10 ladder companies. The fire consumed 60 acres of commercial property and fire insurance would not cover all of the loss.

Thirteen firemen died, nine of them from outside departments. Sixteen were seriously injured.

Chief Damrell knew well the risk of a great fire in downtown Boston and he warned city officials about the inadequate water supply long before the fire. They ignored his warnings and even the reality of the post-fire destruction, as it would be decades before the city upgraded the water system.

Damrell would go on to help draft the early fire and building codes and play a leading role in forming the International Association of Fire Engineers (now the IAFC).

Lynn is burning
Lynn, Mass., also holds a place in fire history for its large fires. Both Lynn and nearby Lowell were giants of America's Industrial Age. The ideas of mutual fire insurance, fire prevention and fire protection had a firm footing in the mills of Lowell and Lynn.

In November 1889, someone knocked over a small stove causing its contents to ignite an oil-soaked floor; the ensuing blaze grew to consume 31 acres of buildings. Flames and sparks also got into coalbunkers along the wharf, where fire continued to burn, smolder and smoke for days.

In the end, 384 buildings were lost. Many were of ordinary or heavy-timber construction with wood floors, saturated with machine oil from years of industrial use.

History repeated
In November 1981, a full-blown conflagration left Lynn's industrial area looking like a bombed-out war zone. It took firefighters from 80 cities and towns using 120 pieces of apparatus supplying 40 heavy streams, 30 aerial streams, and numerous handlines to subdue the conflagration.

This destructive urban-industrial fire (18 mill and industrial buildings) consumed structures built to replace those lost in the 1889 blaze.

Those two conflagrations notwithstanding, the more tragic human event in Lynn is the Nov. 8, 1928 explosion and fire at the Preble Toe Box Company that killed 21 people, including a mother and five children in a nearby home.

The years leading up to WWII saw many serious fires, but fewer great urban fires as firefighters developed better methods of fire defense and employed new technology, such as motorized fire apparatus. During the war years there were more efforts directed at fire prevention, but still the United States experienced some deadly fires, including the Hartford Circus Fire in 1944 where scores died.

Boston, November 1942
The month of November 1942 was extraordinarily deadly in Boston. On Nov. 15, six firefighters were killed, 43 injured and many were trapped under debris for up to 18 hours in the fire and collapse at the Luongo Restaurant fire.

The story of that fire is all but lost to everyone, but the members of the Boston Fire Department, subsumed by the terrible loss of life at the Cocoanut Grove only two weeks later on Nov. 28. Much has been written about the Coconut Grove and yet some of it is still a mystery, including how the fire began and the mechanism of its rapid spread.

The establishment began as a speakeasy in the late 1920s. As a nightclub, the occupancy was supposedly limited to about 600 people, although 1,000 were reportedly present the night of the deadly fire.

The Coconut Grove story has a fire starting in an artificial palm tree and spreading to and through other decorations affixed to the ceiling of the basement lounge. It spread rapidly across the ceiling and up through the only public stairway to the upper level.

The fire spread through the ground-level floor in about five minutes. Every exit intended for use by the public had functional problems.

Boston Engine 22 and Ladder 13 were on a still alarm for an automobile fire a mere 100 yards away when the engine lieutenant saw flames — even their quick response could not avert tragedy. Despite the heroic efforts of Boston's firefighters, nearly 500 men and women lost their lives in a horrific manner.

New methods of treating burn patients used by military doctors and further tested by Boston doctors on burn victims of this fire made a difference for many others in the years to come, including the use of penicillin to treat infection. Building and fire codes also saw changes from this fire, including egress and exit requirements, flame-spread ratings of materials, and expansion of public assembly classification.

The lingering mystery of the Coconut Grove is why so many died so quickly, some literally sitting in their chairs as if nothing had happened. Were they too intoxicated to react quickly, was the smoke produced so toxic as to allow little time for reaction, or was it a combination of both? Speculation and conjecture behind the question remains strong.
 

About the author

Bruce Hensler joined the fire service in 1976 and studied fire science. While in college, he boarded fulltime in a suburban Pittsburgh volunteer fire department protecting high-value commercial properties gaining practical experience in firefighting and rescue work. He served as a career firefighter for the McKeesport Fire Department before moving to Maine where he worked in several departments holding career positions as assistant fire chief and fire chief. He went on to the state's firefighter training program from which he retired as deputy director of operations in 2007. He holds a graduate degree in public administration and a certificate in geographic information systems. His interest in the fire service and its history encompasses the human and geographic aspects of responding to emergencies and disasters. He is an active volunteer firefighter and is currently working on a second book about urban volunteer firefighters in the late twentieth-century. He lives in Pennsylvania and is the author of Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service published in 2011 by Potomac Books. More information about his book is available at www.potomacbooksinc.com/books or at his Web site www.brucehensler.com. Bruce.Hensler@FireRescue1.com.



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