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

Boston Fire Department photographer Bill Noonan provides photos of the action and two veteran fire chiefs share their memories of the fire that launched our popular “On The Job” series.


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...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

8_01_boston4.jpg
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.

8_01_boston5.jpg
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."