Lessons from James Hook Pier Fire


James Hook & Company was a wholesale and retail seafood business on Atlantic Avenue on Boston’s waterfront; its primary product was lobster. The landmark had been serving restaurants and businesses locally and nationally for many years.

Built circa 1925, it sat on a pier of approximately 100 × 100 feet that extended over the water and consisted of a series of connected two-story structures. Its construction was a combination of wood and metal-clad walls with a metal roof system consisting of metal trusses and a metal roof covering.

The structure’s contents included 60,000 pounds of lobster and other seafood products, refrigeration units, a 250-gallon tank of No. 2 heating oil, and water-holding tanks for the lobsters. However, the main fire load consisted of rooms full of stacked corrugated cardboard boxes used for shipping seafood.

On May 30, 2008, at 0325 hours, the Division 1 firehouse received a fire alarm for this business on Atlantic Avenue (a divided road) across from the firehouse, which housed Tower Ladder 3, Rescue 1, and Engine 10, the first-due fire companies. On arrival at 0326 hours, first-arriving units observed heavy smoke and fire. As one of the four deputy chiefs of Division 1, I arrived with them and established incident command. On seeing the heavy fire volume and thick, heavy smoke pushing from the eaves for the entire length of the structure, I immediately called a second alarm for additional resources and made life safety, sufficient resources, and exposure protection the top priorities.

Life safety.Because of the nature of the business and the time of the alarm, it seemed highly likely that no workers were inside the structure, since it was a daytime business operation. Firefighter life safety was the top priority—fire companies reported untenable interior fire conditions, which indicated that the risk far outweighed the gain regarding any potential rescues or immediate interior fire control and extinguishment.

Based on this information, I ordered a defensive fire attack, setting up a 30-foot collapse zone around the structure’s perimeter; firefighters would perform no interior hoseline or roof-venting operations. This was announced to all fire companies on-scene and to those arriving subsequently.

Sufficient resources.The defensive strategy required using master stream appliances and large-diameter hose (LDH) outside the collapse zone for exposure protection, fire confinement, and extinguishment. This would require large volumes of water and sufficient water pressure and, thus, sufficient resources. Within 10 minutes, I called for five alarms and eventually seven alarms within 45 minutes. This brought approximately 30 fire companies and 140 firefighters to the scene. Operations would include three deck guns, five 2½-inch exterior handlines, two tower ladders, six ladder pipes, and the scuba team staffing handlines from the marine unit at the C side (the water side) of the structure (Figure 1).

Figure 1. James Hook & Co. Fire Operations

Accountability. Because of the large number of personnel and apparatus arriving, command and control had to be established quickly. The command and control board, located at the command post, noted the physical location and status of individual units; these data were cross-referenced with unit riding lists for firefighter accountability.

Exposure protection.Life safety and exposure protection necessitated activating the scuba team, which would provide rapid intervention if any firefighters fell into the water, and also exposure protection. Exposures included a wooden pedestrian walkway over the water on the B side, a separate wooden structure on the B/C corner, and the pier support system consisting of creosote-coated pilings under the pier. The scuba team, monitored by a chief officer and staged in the water outside the collapse zone on the C side, used handlines to protect the pier support system.

The structure eventually collapsed in several areas before extinguishment. The fire department maintained scene control well into the next day and did not relinquish it until some 16 hours after arrival on the scene. Scene mitigation required U.S. Coast Guard booming for containment of debris, heating oil, and refrigerants spilled into the harbor and calling a contractor to clean up the contained materials. Final extinguishment required a crane to remove portions of the collapsed structure and debris, which covered hidden pockets of fire.

This fire was fought like any other structure fire with similar fire conditions, except that protecting the foundation, the creosote-coated pilings supporting the pier, was a necessary part of the strategic planning.


Based on the known facts, a defensive strategy was clearly indicated: The occupancy was a daytime business operation located on a pier over water; there were heavy fire conditions and smoke showing; and on-scene fire companies reported untenable interior fire conditions.

The defensive strategy defined the tactics: Set up a collapse zone around the perimeter and perform only exterior operations using master stream appliances. With a heavy volume of fire burning for an extended time, the incident commander (IC) should anticipate collapse.

Civilian and firefighter life safety must always be considered in the IC’s initial size-up. Although civilian life safety is always the first consideration, the IC must be prepared to prioritize firefighter life safety over civilian life safety, if the situation warrants it. An IC determines this through a risk/benefit analysis. Does the risk to the firefighter outweigh the benefit of making a rescue, or does the benefit outweigh the risk?


In the end, the exposures were saved, but the structure collapsed and was lost. The Hook family plans to rebuild the business on the same site eventually. Most importantly, only one firefighter sustained a minor injury. Some might say that that is one too many; however, 140 firefighters worked that fire, and 140 firefighters went home safely to their families. That’s the bottom line.

RICHARD DiBENEDETTO is a deputy chief of Division 1 of the Boston (MA) Fire Department, where he has served for 30 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in public management from the University of Massachusetts.

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