The First “On The Job”: Boston’s Plant Shoe Fire

The first "On The Job" article to appear in the first issue of Firehouse® Magazine was about the Plant Shoe fire in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston in 1976.

The nearly 100-year-old complex contained 13 buildings. Units had been to a one-line fire inside one of the buildings a week before the major blaze.

For this special 25th Anniversary issue, Firehouse® Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner asked Boston Fire Department photographer Bill Noonan for a large group of photos from the fire, many of which did not appear with the original article 25 years ago, and - with the help of Steve McDonald, the department's public information officer - he was able to track down two firefighters who fought the Plant Shoe fire. District Chief Ted Maiorana was a lieutenant assigned to Engine 14 and John Clougherty was the acting division chief the day of the fire. Here are their recollections.

District Chief Ted Maiorana: "The week before the big fire, we had a one-line fire inside the structure at about 5 P.M. It was unusual, but there were four or five large moving vans parked in the street. I had been to the complex a half-dozen times over the years. Artists and sculptors were now occupying the building. It was the biggest building in the area. My mother had told me that the buildings were so large that messengers used roller skates to go from office to office around the turn of the last century (1900).

"There was another run in the area. We were normally assigned third due. We were about a mile away and were assigned first due. There was a heavy smoke condition in the area. I was thinking it was a car fire or tires. As we got closer I noticed large brands going straight up in the smoke. Upon arrival it was evident there was a good working fire in the large complex. I was waiting for the chief to arrive.

Firefighters dove under rigs as the walls came down. The heat melted all the windows in a nearby public housing project.

"I directed the apparatus around several sides of the complex. We followed the smoke. The building was five or six stories high and it was difficult to see the column of smoke way overhead. Halfway down the block we found a hydrant. As we entered the building we noticed three well-dressed men with briefcases coming out of the building. We told the investigators later. We stretched a 21/2-inch line inside the stairtower down the block. We saw skylights from the basement that was under the large courtyard in the center of the building complex. We heard a roaring noise like a freight train running through a tunnel. We had a very serious fire. There was a fire door that we cautiously opened to see if we had a safe vantage point to operate. Most of the fire was in another section of the building, so we closed the fire door.

"As we went deeper into the building we discovered the fire was below us. We really needed quite a bit of help. The fire was way beyond control of one line. We were operating on the second floor from a good vantage point for about 15 to 20 minutes when everything went black. We crawled on our bellies. The smoke was down to the floor. I told the company we have to get out. We were near the stairs and we dove down one flight of stairs to the first floor. When we reached the base of the stairs there were three 21/2-inch lines operating into the fire door where we hadn't seen anything minutes before.

"As we exited the building we looked up and heard firefighters calling for help. They were trapped in the stair tower. There were portable ladders positioned down the street. We slid the ladders 50 or 60 feet along the exterior wall, raised the ladders to at least the fourth or fifth floors and removed the firefighters. Everybody was ordered out. There were 13 buildings in the complex. Heavy-stream appliances, ladder pipes and aerial towers from Boston and surrounding cities were requested. Eventually the walls came down, blocking our rig in the block. One of the walls came down and hit a street lamp. The lamp came down striking a firefighter who was removed to a hospital. Firefighters had to jump under the apparatus to escape the collapse. We were finally relieved at 9 A.M.

The fire eventually destroyed most of the complex. Several occupied brick structures were destroyed across the street. Every engine company in the city was dispatched to the fire.

"We went back later in the week. The fire was still burning under the brick. The water turned to steam and exploded. We used open butts to soak the debris. There was eight to 10 feet of brick in the basement. All 13 buildings were in various stages of collapse except the five-story front walls where the heavy streams were located. The temperature had dropped and there was a lot of ice. We lost a lot of hose in the collapse. There were several three-story brick dwellings that burned on Bickford Street. Some of the walls crushed them as well. There was a seven-story housing project. All the windows fell out due to the radiant heat.

"Water was no problem during the fire. The fire department committed 90 of the engines to the fire. There was a number of wood frames that were saved from the fire. Several unmanned deck guns were used in the street, left secured in front of the brick dwellings. The remains of the five-story walls and eight-story-high chimney remained intact for many years. Now a shopping center fills the site.

Engine 7's hose wagon is covered in ice. The day after the fire started, the temperature dropped and everything was covered in ice.

"Weeks after the fire, while they were cleaning the rig, the hard suction hose was removed from the rig. A few bricks had landed between the body of the truck and the suction hose. Firefighters knew where the bricks had come from. During the fire one of the sculptors was asking the acting division chief to see if he could go back into the building to retrieve some of his work. He apparently was working on a project for Disney. This went on for 10 or 15 minutes as the sculptor was continuing to ask the chief. Finally the chief had his aide escort the person away from the command post."

Deputy Chief John Clougherty (ret.): Clougherty spent 371/2 years with the Boston Fire Department, including 17 years as a deputy chief in Division 1. At the time of the Plant Shoe fire, Clougherty was the acting deputy chief in Division 2. Clougherty and his aide were on the road, heard the alarm being dispatched and monitored the radio.

When the second alarm was struck, he responded to the scene. Division 1's quarters were not far from the scene and it was a quick response. Clougherty recalled that he could see a little glow as he approached the area. He responded in on Bickford Street. Companies were operating on several floors. Across the street were a series of three-story brick buildings. He directed several of the second-alarm companies to check the fire floor and floor below. The fire was very slow spreading. It was a large building, a city block long and separated into sections. The fire wound up in the wide open basement and extended up in one section. Clougherty remembered there was a tall chimney at the rear of the complex.

"We set up 25 feet from the chimney preparing to stop the fire as it extended towards us. The fire went right by, window by window. After the third alarm, companies were removed from the building to hit the fire from the outside. Water made no difference, the fire took the entire back of the building. Deck guns and ladder pipes were set up. I always like to walk around and see for myself what the conditions were. Two mutual aid towers were requested and the fire extended right past them."

Clougherty ordered the fifth alarm. Chief of Department George Paul responded. All the engines in the city, with the exception of one to protect the "high-value district," were directed to the scene. Clougherty said he had excellent communications with the fireground radios.

"Chiefs reported no progress in their areas. We still couldn't seem to stop it."

Clougherty had ordered an additional district chief and two companies to see how far the fire had extended in the 13-building complex. Apparently, that is when it was discovered that the fire was in the basement, feeding on 100 years of residue from the shoe factory and other materials left inside.

Many unmanned deck guns were left in the street to protect the exposures. Because of the radiant heat, firefighters could not be left in those positions.

"Numerous streams were stretched all over the fireground. Bricks on the exposure were glowing white hot. Sprinkler connections were located on one building, but the connections were broken. During the entire fire, there weren't any water problems. Several pumpers were pumping from two to three blocks away, supplementing the pumpers that were closer to the scene. One of the most important factors was that it rained during the fire. Embers the size of grapefruits were landing all over the wooden dwellings in the Jamaica Plain section of the city. It if wasn't for the rain, there may have been a conflagration."

After Clougherty was relieved and went home in the morning, the fire blew over some of the exposures, scorching them. The wind shifted and it became bitter cold. A few days later, when Clougherty returned to work, he was amazed to see the scorching on the exposures and all the buildings that had collapsed.

"It was one of, if not the, biggest fire in the city's history. A block-long complex. For the amount of fire and smoke conditions, fire operations were excellent. Companies ran lines, attempted to cut off the fire, dealt with the tremendous heat, but the rain saved the day."

Harvey Eisner adds: We thank Chief Clougherty for taking the time to talk with us. In 1972, Chief Clougherty was a district chief assigned to District 4. He responded to the fire in the Vendome Hotel. He was quartered with five of the nine firefighters who died when the fire building collapsed during overhaul. He recalled that he had spoken to the men 10 minutes earlier. He was talking with a lieutenant from Engine 33. Clougherty took three steps one way, the lieutenant took three steps the other way. That's when the building collapsed, taking the lieutenant and the other firefighters down. Nine firefighters died June 17, 1972. In 1997, Associate Publisher Jeff Barrington and I attended the 25th anniversary Vendome Memorial dedication ceremony in Boston, across the street from the Vendome. We still carry Vendome Memorial medallions on our key chains.