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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Toward morning, Engine 5 would piggy-back with another pumper to bring the boom back into action. The siamese coupling had stripped away when McDonald drove off, the feeder line still attached to the hydrant. Captain Al Downey, then a lieutenant, tried to cut the feeder with an axe but time ran out.

"The building was about to collapse," said Downey. "We didn't have any choice. When we first arrived, we assumed we had a one- or two-room fire. The fire was coming out the first floor, right side. The deck gun darkened it right down, so we thought we could control it. We didn't know the fire was rolling over the whole length of the building in the rear."

Photo by Walter Hoey
Eventually, firefighters from 94 departments in three states responded to the scene or covered empty firehouses.

According to Downey, the second alarm was struck about the time the windows blew out of the fifth floor.

"That fire took off so fast we had to get the engine out of there. Engine 6 and Ladder 3 had to get out as well," he said. "The ladder had to back down the street with the stick extended."

Within 20 minutes, the fire had spread to three buildings, creating a firestorm with accompanying winds.

"If you stood back aways, you could see the firestorm swirling around the buildings, almost like a tornado," Downey said. "It was blowing fire from building to building."

District Chief James Barry, then a captain on Engine 1, also recalled the firestorm. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. The fire was creating its own wind. It was frightening," he said. "We backed up maybe 400 feet and then had to back up again. The front of Ladder 1 was burning up. The windshield was blackened and cracked from the heat. The lenses on the pump were melting, it took off that fast."

Barry said the two hoselines connected to Engine 1 were burning. "They actually burst in the street," he said. "We dragged the lines up the street even though they were still connected to the hydrant." Hot to the touch, the hoses burned the orange neoprene gloves then worn by Lynn firefighters.

Photo by Jill Honig
A wall of the Beasan Shoe Factory starts to collapse as firefighters using a tower ladder operate a large-caliber hose stream.

Chiaradonna, the lieutenant from Engine 3, put it this way: "It got so hot, we had to turn the booster on the engine."

Although Lynn firefighters over the years were frequently called to extinguish small fires in the factory buildings, they received no assistance that night from the sprinkler system inside the Oxford Shoe building. Demolition of the factory had just begun. The rear wall was removed, the sprinkler system shut down.

Deputy Chief William Conway was second-in-command. "The whole back of the building was wide open, so the fire had plenty of oxygen and it just took off. The sprinklers were shut off in the original fire building but in others they were on, and as those buildings collapsed, they couldn't be shut off, so the sprinklers poured water into the basements where it was of no use to us."

Despite the waste of water, firefighters had enough pressure.

"Eventually, we had to set up a relay of pumpers from Lynn Harbor to pump salt water to supplement our supply," Conway said. "By then, we'd lost all kinds of hose, we had damaged apparatus and the fire was still going. These were old buildings, with unprotected openings and open elevators shafts. They had adhesives and chemicals soaked into the floors, and in some cases the window frame construction was a factor."

The firestorm tended to spread flames to brick buildings with wood-frame windows rather than those with limestone sills. "With today's building codes, some of that might not have happened," Conway said. "It wasn't a fun night."

Photo Courtesy of William Conway
This burning structure is a heavy timber constructed building that was erected near the turn of the century. Over the years, its wooden floors had become saturated with chemicals.

Photo Courtesy of William Conway
A deck pipe operates into a fully involved building. The damage reached $80 million.

At one point during the fire, Conway and then Fire Chief Joseph Scanlon went airborne with then Gov. Edward King in a state police helicopter. "From the air you could really see the fire spreading through the fire walls," Conway said. "That's when we ordered everybody out."