The Second Great Lynn Fire: 15 Years Later

David Liscio describes the conflagration that ravaged a shoe factory and required mutual aid from 94 communities in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.


The first indication that the shoe factory fire of Nov. 28, 1981, would be no ordinary two-bagger in Lynn, MA, came when District Chief Paul Kirby quickly radioed for a second and third alarm. Photo by Walter Hoey Within 20 minutes, the fire spread to three buildings, creating...


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The first indication that the shoe factory fire of Nov. 28, 1981, would be no ordinary two-bagger in Lynn, MA, came when District Chief Paul Kirby quickly radioed for a second and third alarm.

11_96_lynn1.jpg
Photo by Walter Hoey
Within 20 minutes, the fire spread to three buildings, creating a firestorm with accompanying winds.

The unflappable Kirby had a reputation among his men for not seeking help unnecessarily. But that night plenty of assistance was required. It arrived through mutual aid from 94 communities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and included Rhode Island crews that backed up firehouses where men and apparatus had been sent to the scene.

Firefighter Glen Richard and Lieutenant Al Chiaradonna were on Engine 3 that night. Kirby had already requested the second alarm.

"I knew right there that this was going to be a big one," Richard recalled in a recent interview. "You'd have to have an inferno going for Chief Kirby to ask for extra help. Then I heard they were calling the mayor to tell him what was happening. I'd never heard them do that before."

By sunrise, the industrial heart of this blue-collar coastal city 10 miles north of Boston was in ruins. Seventeen buildings were destroyed and nine others heavily damaged, including turn-of-the-century, eight-story shoe factories of heavy timber construction and wooden floors saturated with chemicals. Nearly 800 of the city's 78,000 residents were left homeless and thousands more jobless. Only three firefighters from out-of-town departments were injured, the most serious case a broken leg caused by a roof collapse.

The National Guard was called in to prevent looting. Final damage estimates reached $80 million and so seriously set back local redevelopment efforts that the overall impact is evident today.

Authorities soon determined that the fire was purposely set by an arsonist, although the only arrest and conviction in connection with the blaze was for perjury in federal court.

The action began at 2:35 A.M. John Gilroy was on duty at Lynn Fire Alarm. The police called to report a fire in progress at the old Oxford Shoe Co. When Gilroy struck Box 414, it officially marked the start of the second-largest conflagration in the city's history. The First Great Lynn Fire (1889) occurred almost 92 years earlier to the day, destroying four banks, 80 shoe companies, 158 factories, 128 houses and three newspapers.

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Photo Courtesy of David Liscio
Seventeen buildings were destroyed, 800 people were left homeless and three firefighters were injured.

Captain James McDonald was a firefighter on Engine 5 when the alarm was sounded. The unit was first to arrive. Engines 1, 3 and 6 and Ladders 1 and 3 were moments behind.

"We figured we'd be there an hour and a half," McDonald recalled. "We connected up to a hydrant with a three-inch feeder and put the squirt to work. Chief Kirby went down the alley. We heard him calling for additional alarms and that wasn't like him. Even his aide, Teddy Donahue, was wondering what was going on. Teddy said, 'Paul, are you serious?' And then Paul walked him down the back of the building."

Flames were billowing from every opening at the rear of the Oxford Shoe building. Within five minutes, the front was a mirror image, the walls threatening to collapse.

"All of a sudden, the whole building was going," said McDonald. "I had to move the apparatus with the jacks still in place and the boom still in the air, fully extended. I drove it forward, probably 50 feet, just to get it out of the line of the burning building where the cornice and parapet had started to fall. The boom hit one of the streetlights as it was moving down the street. The light was knocked off and hit the roof of the apparatus. I thought the building had collapsed."

McDonald said he eventually stopped the truck between two buildings and immediately tried to pump water. "I couldn't get any water through the boom. The siamese coupling had pulled out the side pump so the truck was out of service."

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