'The Chamber of Horrors'
By Chas Sisk
BEVERLY - Bruce Palmer's father had warned him the Elliott Chambers rooming house was a tinderbox. But the fire Palmer saw early on the morning of July 4, 1984, was worse than he could have imagined.
"Every single window looked like a Roman candle," Palmer, a retired fire captain, recalled recently.
Residents were leaning out of upper-floor windows, screaming for help, as firefighters arrived and scrambled to raise ladders. One man lay dead on the street corner. He'd panicked and tried to jump to safety.
"Once we found out what we had, we knew we were going to have some big problems," Palmer said.
By sunrise, 14 residents of the Elliott Chambers were dead. Another died from burns a few days later.
The fire, which occurred 20 years ago this weekend, was the second-deadliest in Massachusetts history, exceeded only by the Cocoanut Grove nightclub blaze that killed 492 people in 1942.
Two decades later, the Elliott Chambers fire has begun to fade from memory. The building has been rebuilt. Most of the survivors have either died or disappeared. The people who fought the blaze have begun to retire, and the man convicted of setting it is in prison, sentenced to two life terms.
But no one who lived through it emerged from the disaster unscathed.
'Nothing but death'
Just an hour before the fire occurred, retired Beverly firefighter Harry Clark was standing at the Washington-Beadle School, across from the rooming house.
It was 3 o'clock in the morning, and a false alarm had summoned firefighters to the Rantoul Street school. As they investigated, Clark, who grew up a few blocks away, looked over at Elliott Chambers, a building he had walked past countless times. He wished aloud that they'd never have to fight a major fire there.
"We called it the Chamber of Horrors," he said.
Firefighters knew Elliott Chambers well. During inspections, they had seen the hive of rooms lining the wide central hallway of the three-story building. They knew the construction was flimsy and the corridors were lined with trash cans.
"We had practiced for that fire for years," said retired firefighter Tony Capozzi, who was on Clark's ladder truck. "Everybody kind of knew when we saw it there would be nothing but death."
After finding nothing at the Washington-Beadle School, Clark and his comrades drove back to the fire station. They were just settling in when police received a report of a fire at Elliott Chambers.
A fire dispatcher was monitoring the police band and sent trucks out immediately. Within two minutes, three fire trucks were on the scene, but the fire was already raging.
Kenneth Pelonzi, who had been named fire chief just two days earlier, ordered firefighters not to fight the blaze. Instead, he told them to grab every available ladder and get people out of the building.
As the ladder truck approached, Capozzi recalled watching as a patrolman tried to convince a man on the third floor to stay put. The man jumped, striking his head on an electrical box.
Clark jackknifed the ladder truck to a stop a few feet from the man who had jumped from the third-floor window. Clark didn't recognize the man, but Capozzi did. He was Richard Duest, Clark's cousin and a frequent visitor to the fire station. The soles of his feet had been charred black.
Clark got out of the truck and began raising the ladder. Richard Conrad, another firefighter, jumped on the ladder and rode it to the second floor. He rescued one man there, then helped Clark and Palmer rescue a woman using a ground ladder.
Then Conrad returned to the second floor to look for survivors. He climbed in a window and looked into the hallway. He saw two young men; the ceiling above them was covered in flame.
Conrad grabbed one of them by the belt and tried to pull him toward the window. The man pried at Conrad's mask, pulling at the hose that connected it to his oxygen tank. He began to drag Conrad into the corridor and, when Conrad broke free, the men took off down the hallway.
A few rooms away, Louis Bennett, a fire lieutenant at the time, was trying to convince a woman to climb out a window. But the woman was convinced she could escape down the hallway. She pushed him away.
"I opened the door -- the flames were rolling by the door -- and I said, 'We can't go that way,' " Bennett said. "And I told her I wasn't leaving without her."
He shut the door and took an ax to the window. He cut away the sash and led her down the ladder.
On the back side of the building, where the fire was the least intense, firefighter Richard Cotraro rescued an elderly man. The man perched himself on the windowsill and smoked a cigarette as Cotraro climbed toward him.
"He was pretty cool about it," Cotraro said.
In all, firefighters rescued eight people.
Then the shouts died down, and fire and smoke took over the building.
Twenty years later, firefighters say the blaze itself was fairly easy to knock down. It was less intense than the fires that had ripped through abandoned factories along Rantoul Street in the 1970s.
What made the fire so deadly was the speed with which it spread.
Once the fire was out, firefighters entered the building over the front stairway. The second floor was intact, but the walls and ceiling were soot black. A foot of water stood on the floor, and pieces of bedding and furniture floated past.
The two men Conrad had tried to save were lying at the far end of the corridor. They had tried to go out the back door to the fire escape, but they couldn't find the lock. Their hand prints were visible in the soot.
In the manager's suite, firefighters found the bodies of building manager Hattie Whary; Francis Hinchey, a sick resident she had been caring for; and Ralph Nickerson, Whary's 9-year-old grandson. The boy had been visiting for the night. His body was found behind a bureau, where he had apparently tried to hide.
The victims were just below the room where Cotraro had rescued the elderly smoker. If the fire had occurred on any other day, Cotraro believes they would have lived.
"We had 18 men on duty," Cotraro said. "Our minimum at the time was 22, but we had 18 for vacations. If there was another crew, going to him or going to that back door, more people might have got out alive."
The third floor was completely destroyed. Part of the roof had caved in, and many of the walls had burned away. The fire appeared to have spread too quickly for residents to even try to escape. None of the seven victims found on the third floor had left their rooms.
Firefighters moved cautiously through the rubble. Removing the bodies took all morning and most of the afternoon. Firefighters carefully collected the remains into body bags, then passed them down an aerial ladder to waiting hearses.
Of the 36 people staying in Elliott Chambers that night, 13 of them died inside the building. One man jumped. Another escaped, but later died of burns.
At one point, rescue workers ran out of body bags. More had to be sent from a neighboring town.
After the last bodies were passed down, the firefighters who had responded to the initial call were relieved of duty. Many had planned Fourth of July celebrations and barbecues, but few were in the mood.
Palmer went to visit his mother and father in Maine. His father, John, had been a firefighter in Beverly for 30 years before retiring in 1962. He had followed the fire on the radio.
"My father started asking me all kinds of questions," Palmer said. "He had told me years ago, he hoped they never had a fire in that building, and in his 30 years they never did.
"You work for 32 years; you make it your whole life. And you end up with the stigma of being part of the worst rooming house fire in the country. It's kind of crazy."
Few talked much about the fire in the years that followed. Stress counseling hadn't yet become common, and some firefighters struggled to deal with their feelings.
"Everybody kind of kept to themselves," Bennett said.
But the fire changed the men. Many of them had seen deaths before -- in other fires or while serving in Vietnam -- but never so many, so quickly.
"It stayed with me for a while because we lost some kids," Capozzi said. "When I first became a firefighter, I did it because I wanted to help people. I wanted to do the job.
"After that, it seemed more like all I was doing was going to people's houses and witnessing their misery."
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07-01-2004, 10:34 PM #1
Remembering Beverlys chamber of horrors fire.I dont suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it.
07-02-2004, 01:09 PM #2
Sprinkler law, code changes are fire's legacy
By Paul Leighton
One mile away and 20 years later, Elliott Chambers could have happened again.
Around 3 a.m. on May 12, a fire broke out in a rooming house on Broadway in Beverly. Someone had left smoking materials on a couch in the front hallway, starting a fire that could have spread rapidly through the three-story rooming house.
"It would've made an incredible fire," Deputy Fire Chief Paul Cotter said. "We would've had a dangerous situation."
But unlike Elliott Chambers, this rooming house had automatic sprinklers. The sprinklers kept the fire contained to the front hallway until firefighters arrived to put it out completely. None of the 12 tenants was hurt.
Those sprinklers are the major legacy of Elliott Chambers, the July 4, 1984, Beverly rooming house fire that killed 15 people and remains the second-deadliest fire in the history of Massachusetts.
Two years after the fire, the state Legislature passed a law that allows communities to require automatic sprinklers in rooming houses with six or more people. The law was proposed by then-Beverly state Rep. Frances Alexander as a direct result of the Elliott Chambers tragedy.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services, 111 of the state's 351 communities have passed the rooming house sprinkler law. Many smaller towns, such as Marblehead, have not adopted the law only because they don't have any rooming houses.
Jennifer Mieth of the state Department of Fire Services credited the Elliott Chambers sprinkler law with helping to virtually eliminate large-scale rooming house fires.
In 1984, the year of the Elliott Chambers fire, 23 people died in rooming house fires in Massachusetts, according to the Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System. In 2002, only one person died in a rooming house fire.
Rooming house fires still occur, but automatic sprinklers prevent them from turning into major tragedies with multiple deaths, Mieth said.
"Sprinklers control the fire in one room where the fire is occurring and gives everybody else a chance to get out," Mieth said. "You maybe lose one room, but you don't lose the whole rooming house."
Upping the cost
Not everyone is thrilled with the results of the sprinkler law.
Skip Schloming, executive director of the Small Property Owners Association, which is based in Cambridge, said the automatic sprinkler requirement has helped create a shortage of rooming houses in Massachusetts.
The extra cost of installing sprinklers -- anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 -- is a "major financial barrier" that has discouraged some property owners from opening rooming houses, he said.
Schloming said the shortage, especially in Boston, has led to a lack of affordable housing and an increase in homelessness. The number of rooming houses has declined mostly because of neighborhood opposition, he said, "but sprinklers would put a certain number of owners on the 'No, I don't want to do this' track."
Mieth called the decline in the number of rooming houses an "unintended consequence" of the sprinkler law.
"It sort of upped the cost of doing business," she acknowledged. "But a lot of people were dying in rooming houses every year, and that is no longer one of our pressing problems. I see that as a great success story."
Beverly Fire Chief Richard Pierce, who fought the Elliott Chambers fire 20 years ago, said there is a "world of difference" in the safety of the city's 12 rooming houses now.
All of them have automatic sprinklers, fire alarms and smoke detectors, he said, as well as fire doors that prevent the kind of rapid spread that doomed Elliott Chambers. Rooming houses with more than 13 units must have "automatic notification" fire alarms that are tied in directly either to the fire station or to a private company that notifies fire and police.
Modern construction materials are also less combustible than the thin wood paneling that accelerated the fire at Elliott Chambers, Pierce said.
Pierce said the Elliott Chambers tragedy served as the impetus for many of the changes in fire safety codes.
"Credit it for all the things that have occurred since then," he said. "People are more aware now."I dont suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it.
03-06-2009, 09:11 AM #3
- Join Date
- Mar 2009
The Elliott chambers fire was a horrible horrbile event, I dont know why in the world someone would do that . I do know one thing though, it WAS NOT my father. I have suffered 21 years of my life now wondering what it is like to have my father be with me as a free man. It seems that authority has givin up to find the real monster of this terrible fire, right now there is an innocent man in prison for two life sentences for something he never did. My father can barely walk now, as he had a brain tumor removed a few years ago and he has lost hearing on one side. His life has pretty much been taken away forever and he missed his little girl growing up. I would give anything to have him home. It just scares me that the accutial person who set this fire is still out there on the loose and nobody even moves a finger to find them and free my innocent dad.
03-09-2009, 02:31 PM #4
- Join Date
- Mar 2004
- Memphis Tn,USA-now
I'm told that one reason people don't want to install sprinklers is because they think if one head sets off,they all go.If you remember,in every sitcom where a fire alarm goes off,the entire sprinkler system lights off as well and soaks the two idiots that were trying to sneak home to their wives or whatever.
People pick up on that more than you'd think and believe it as much as anything you see on "Mythbusters".
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