10-15: Tragedy on Com Ave: The Collapse of the Hotel Vendome

Firefighting History: 10-15: Tragedy on Com Ave: The Collapse of the Hotel Vendome
Photo: Boston Fire Department

By Kevin J. Mochen

At 0745 hours on June 18, 1972, over the tappers, registers, and gongs of the fire alarm system of Boston (MA) Fire Department, the special signal 10-1-5 was transmitted. This signal, known as ten-fifteen, is transmitted for the death of any member of the department. The signal was followed by this announcement over the fire department radio.

"The Fire Commissioner and the Chief of Department regrets to announce the deaths of the following members:

Lieutenant Thomas J. Carroll--Engine Company 32

Lieutenant John E. Hanbury--Ladder Company 13

Firefighter Charles E. Dolan-- Ladder Company 13

Firefighter Joseph P. Saniuk--Ladder Company 13

Firefighter John E. Jameson--Engine Company 22

Firefighter Thomas W. Beckwith--Engine Company 32

Firefighter Paul J. Murphy-- Engine Company 32

Firefighter Richard B. Magee--Engine Company 33

Firefighter Joseph F. Boucher Jr.--Engine Company 22

who died in the performance of their duties at Box 1571 on June 17."

The loss of life of nine members constitutes the largest single loss of lives in the long, proud history of the department. This fire left eight widows and 23 children fatherless. Forty years have passed since this historic fire; perhaps the time has come to recall memories of that afternoon.

The Hotel

After the Civil War, the area known as the Back Bay was filled in, coincidently, by the rubble left by the Great Boston Fire of 1872, which swept through the downtown area of the city. Construction of the elegant hotel began in 1871 at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Dartmouth Street. In the late 1800s, Commonwealth Avenue was the most fashionable section of the entire city. Brahmins were proud of their influence and culture as the Athens of the New World. In an effort to show the grandeur and greatness of their status, the Vendome was architecturally modeled as a reproduction of the Vendome in Gay Paree. When the hotel was expanded and completely remodeled in 1881, it was considered the very best in accommodations and culinary experience in the entire country. Guests were members of the 500, the one percent of that Gilded Age: Captains of industry, financial wizards of Wall Street, authors, artists and the cultural icons of the era. The hotel register included such dignitaries as former president and general Ulysses S. Grant; President Grover Cleveland; Admiral Peary; Julia Ward Howe, abolitionist and composer of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic;" and the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the lady whose novel started the War. Citizens, guests , and visitors alike have gazed upon the Victorian façade for over 150 years.

After the disastrous conflagration of November 1872, the General Court and the city enacted legislation mandating improved life safety and construction outlawing certain construction practices, particularly in Back Bay. Hence when the hotel opened for business, the structure contained brick arches, steel beams, and masonry walls with slate covering the mansard roofs to prevent flying firebrands from spreading fire from one building to another, as was the case in the conflagration of 1872. Thomas Edison came to Beantown to oversee the installation of more than 60 electric lights as the Vendome became the first hotel in the country to be so modernized.

The regular guests knew the staff and the staff knew the quirks of each of the guests. Both groups aged together. The hotel saw the new century, basked in the Allied victory, horrified by the police strike, and paid little attention to Prohibition. However society and social life began to age with the income tax, The Great Depression, and then finally a long fatal slide that began with World War II.

The Back Bay was not exempt from the decline of inner cities. Crime, riots and arson plagued America in the '60s and '70s. The building's demise as a hotel was hastened by the first of several fires. In January 1968, a careless disposal of a cigarette ignited a fire which ended its long history as an upscale destination. An arson fire in the spring was followed by another in late summer. Another fire of undetermined origin occurred two days later. A $750,000 loss because of a three alarmer in the winter of '69 caused serious damage. Box 1574 was pulled by a passerby some five months later, a few days after Christmas, which resulted in a suspicious two-alarm fire. Because of the damage from these fires, both the Massachusetts Public Safety Department and the city of Boston licensing division pulled the occupancy permits. 

Remodeling

In the spring of 1971, the new owners began to undertake major renovations of this building with the purpose of converting the building into upscale residential apartments with retail space on the lower floors. Architectural and structural engineering firms were hired. Architectural and structural engineering firms were fired. Then rehired. The owners' paper trail for permits, contractors, firms, and inspections over the next year engaged a complex process. Finally on December 6, 1971, the building department of the city issued a permit to remodel the existing structure into 124 residential apartments and a shopping mall. The very next afternoon, Pearl Harbor Day, Café Vendome opened for business in the basement. The rest of the building was far from completion.

Fire

Saturday, June 17, 1972, the 196th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, was a beautiful early summer day. This day commenced as a very quiet day for the men in the dispatch center as only five box alarms were transmitted. In the early afternoon, the Red Sox hosted the Chicago Nine in the first of a day-night double header. Around noon, the Café opened its doors and commenced serving about 100 patrons.

Sometime before 1430 hours, electricians working on the first floor above the Café saw smoke drifting down from the upper floors. One of the workers ran up to the third floor, where he encountered heavy smoke. Another man ran to the café and told the bartender of the fire. The patrons exited the basement orderly, quickly, and safely. A worker ran to the corner of Dartmouth and Newbury and pulled Box 1571 and it was received by the fire alarm office at 1435. Almost simultaneously, the office received a call from the bartender reporting, "Hey, there's smoke in the Café of the Vendome on Com Ave." Engines 33, 22, 7; Ladders 15 and 13; and the District 4 Chief, "Guppy" Doherty, responded to the first alarm.

Engine 33 and Ladder 15 responded from their firehouse on Boylston Street near the Prudential Center. They turned left onto Dartmouth Street and reported smoke showing from the Hotel Vendome. Ladder 15 turned into Public Alley 434 at the rear of the hotel, raised its aerial to the 4th floor and the laddermen climbed the "stick" and began to access the 4th floor where they encountered heavy smoke. Engine 33 went to the front of the building and attempted to run a hoseline up the front stairs but construction and barriers prevented proper hose placement. Because of the deteriorating conditions, heavy smoke, and fire, additional alarms were ordered by Deputy Chief John O'Mara. A longtime Lakes Region resident, retired Chief George Thompson, then Captain of Engine 37, testified that 37 was the first-due company on the second alarm. "We ran a line from our pump to the 4th floor where we operated for a couple of hours, dragging the line from place to place. There was lots of fire. 37 was a great assignment." The Officer reminisced, "We had a great running card. Done a lot of fire duty. But we took a beating at the Vendome, all kinds of fire, heavy smoke, and when the rake men were opening up we had to keep moving the line to kill the fire."

The pump operator of Engine Company 7, "Bull" Heaney, reported that 7 was hooked to a hydrant near the building and had six lines and a deck gun run off his pump. That's an indication of how much fire there was.

As the afternoon wore on, activity for the department picked up. Several minor fires were extinguished. However in Grove Hall, Box 1792 was received for a fire in the Savings Bank building. Six engines and three ladders were required to extinguish the fire. At Fenway, the TV cameras focused on the heavy smoke not all that far from the game. Ned Martin interrupted his play-by-play to report the fire and many citizens telephoned the fire alarm office inquiring about the fire. The nerve center of the fire department was extremely busy. After the Sox loss, many people walked down to see the fire.

 At the corner of Com Ave and Dartmouth, Chaplin Father Dan Mahoney, pastor of St. Francis Church in Charlestown, was conversing with Chief Chaplin Father James Keating. "He told me," said Father Dan, "run along, it's pretty much knocked down. I'll stay a little while longer." Father returned to his rectory on the top of Bunker Hill.

The battle went on for nearly three hours. When the heavy fire was knocked down, extensive overhauling looking for hidden fire commenced. The men were rotating and taking a breather: water, cup of Joe, a smoke. Capt. Thompson said later that 37 was operating on the fourth floor in the newer section, hitting some fire, when the whole back section just let go. It was there and then it was gone. The entire back section of the building--built 100 years ago--just fell. There was no warning. Down it went, taking many to either injury or death. At 1728, nearly three hours after the first alarm, 1/6 of the entire building was a pile of debris. All the men jumped into action to save the brothers.

(The author of this article can confirm by training, knowledge and personal experience that buildings do collapse "without warning". While operating at a multiple on Island Street in lower Roxbury in the spring of '71, he, along with Chief Joe Breen, were showered with bricks from a collapse without warning. Providentially, neither he nor the chief received life-threatening injuries.)

Ladder 15 was buried by the collapse; wrecked. Engine 7 was covered with plaster, dust, and smoke. The chiefs brought order out of chaos: some companies were commanded to extinguish fire, some were ordered off the pile to prevent more weight on the field of debris. Company officers held a roll call. The long, long ordeal of removing the injured and recovering the dead had begun. A man was lying on the top of the huge pile. "He was just laid there; not a scratch on him," one of the first to reach him said. Another reported, "He's dead."

Steve Cloonan of Engine 13, the Rescue Pumper Unit, was operating at the Grove Hall fire when Chief Kilroy ordered the company to transfer the line to the hydrant, make up the pump, and get down to the hotel fire immediately. In his long and distinguished career, Cloonan never received such a command. "You never left a line, you always made it up." But this day was different. 13 reported to Chief Dolan and worked cutting timbers, removing brick and concrete until midnight, when they were relieved by fresh troops.

The direct line from the department rang in the rectory as Father was enjoying a cup of tea. "They briefed me and told me not to go to the fire but to be available to notify the next of kin." It proved to be an emotional night for the chaplain, who brought the sad news to four or five families. At first it was a shock for the wives, but as time went on, they knew. TV was all over the catastrophe. Dave Johnson, Engine 50, was detailed to drive Chief Noonan and Mahoney from home to home. Many years later he said the loved ones were intently watching the news and calling the department, but no one told them anything. Then the red car pulled up. They hoped--but they knew. There was no small talk in the red car; it was the longest night for Johnson, for his cousin was one of the dead.

Keating was busy giving last rites to some seriously injured men and sadly anointing the dead as they were pulled from the heap. Lt. Jimmy McCabe of 33 was buried, and the thoughts of many were that he would not make it. He along with many others were removed to both the city hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. Even though he was buried for more than an hour, Firefighter Feeney of 22 was removed to the city hospital, treated for a minor leg wound, and released. It was pure luck whether you were unscathed, injured, or dead. The pump operator, Firefighter Heaney of Engine 7, was injured while helping to recover bodies and taken to the hospital. At 2045, more than three hours after the collapse, the last man was rescued alive. At 0230 the next morning, the last body was recovered and Mahoney made his final notification.

Since all of the deceased were Catholic, planning was undertaken to have a single Requiem Mass at the Cathedral in the South End. Thousands of firefighters were expected to attend and it was of utmost importance to maintain decorum at all times, both inside the church and outside the cathedral.

On Thursday, June 22, the Mass was concelebrated by the Archbishop of Boston, Humberto Medeiros, at the Holy Cross Cathedral. Fittingly, to match the gloom and sadness, it rained torrents, soaking the thousands of firefighters and the public who could not be seated in the edifice.

Cause

Within hours, Fire Commissioner James H. Kelley convened a board of inquiry to attempt to ascertain the cause of the collapse with the resulting deaths of nine firefighters. Deputy Chief Lesile W. Magoon was appointed chairman of the seven-member panel, which was comprised of outstanding, professional chief officers. Chief Magoon made use of engineering consultants, the city building and licensing departments, and construction experts. This included extensive interviews of officers and members, many of whom were injured. The only light moment of the hearings was the testimony of Firefighter Dick Powers of 33 Engine, who recalled that he had just stepped into the another section of the building and lit up a Lucky Strike. He told the board that a cigarette saved his life.

The cause of the fire has never been determined. The genesis of the collapse dates from the 1890s when major alterations on the first floor of the structure were undertaken. Without confusing the reader with technical data, suffice it to say that a load-bearing wall was removed and cast-iron columns added. This was probably done to create an open concept. However, a seven-inch column was the main support above the second floor. Perhaps in that era not enough knowledge of construction was known that this column was far from adequate to carry such a load.

After the series of fires, the structure underwent a most extensive gentrification. Applications for permits were forwarded to the city building department and reviewed. Some were denied, some altered, and some issued. A careful study of this activity (and it would take a careful study) by the owners shows a hodge-podge of plans and paper work. Further alterations on the second floor compromised the bearing walls, which led to stresses on the deficient, 1890-era cast-iron column. The best conclusion is that the owners and the construction companies did what they wanted. The result--collapse!

Conclusion of the Board of Inquiry, BFD

"The loss of support at the base of the circular cast-iron column was sufficient to trigger the collapse of the entire building at the second floor...It is apparent the cutting of the opening in the 12-inch bearing wall…weakened the wall enough to initiate the collapse." Although thousands of gallons of water were poured in the building by many hoselines, water ran off through existing construction holes, by ladder companies opening drains, cutting holes in floors and the removal of toilets. Water, the board concluded, was not the main culprit.

The Memorial

On the 25th Anniversary of the fire, the department unveiled and dedicated a memorial on the Commonwealth Ave Mall opposite the converted building. This memorial was funded by the Edward Ingersoll Browne Trust Fund, the Firemen's Relief Association, Local 718 IAFF, and many other large and small donations too numerous to mention. The amount of these donations totaled more than $500,000. The low sweeping black granite wall truly confers the atmosphere of the tragedy. When you are in the city, taking in a ball game, viewing the marathon, riding the swan boats with the kids, or just strolling, take a few minutes and visit this place of quiet remembrance, reflect, perhaps say a prayer, and recall that awful Father's Day weekend in '72.

Kevin J. Mochen is a retired member of the Boston (MA) Fire Department.

Firefighting History: 10-15: Tragedy on Com Ave: The Collapse of the Hotel Vendome
Photo: Boston Fire Department

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