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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Photo Courtesy of William Conway
The fire left thousands of residents of this coastal city in Massachusetts without jobs.

Scanlon, now retired, said the fire was "the first real test of the mutual aid system through the various radio control areas. Before then, everything was done by telephone line. You had to call each department separately. But with this we put in one call and got 10 to 12 engines. Another call and we got a dozen more."

Scanlon said the mutual aid system was known as Newton Control and coordinated by Metro Fire.

"The firefighters came from just about everywhere. Nine hundred of them. Every place but for Quincy, which had its own two-alarm going, Rowley, which didn't answer alarms after 6 P.M., and Dracut, which had to take care of that entire stretch of the Merrimack Valley. We assembled the largest compilation of firefighters in the United States, with the exception of the woods and wildfires you get in California. At one point during the fire, I counted nine ladder pipes alone on Washington Street."

The ex-fire chief said manpower and equipment wasn't a problem. "In those days, we had 10 engines, four ladders, two rescues and about 289 men. And the equipment was not out-of-service."

Scanlon said the governor put every available resource at his disposal, as did then Lynn Mayor Antonio Marino. "The mayor insisted that every city department do what we told them to do," he said. "He was a very cooperative mayor. I had to buy thousands and thousands of dollars worth of equipment right on the spot, making all those decisions without any bid process, and he was behind me even though I didn't have a dime in my pocket."

For most firefighters working that night, it was a rare opportunity to battle a blaze under war zone conditions. Despite the widespread callback, not all of them made it. Captain Jack Decareau, Lynn's lead arson investigator, was on a day off.

"I missed it," he recalled. "My teenage daughter was in a beauty pageant in Rhode Island. She won Little Miss Lovely of New England. I was in a hotel. I saw the fire on TV. An engine down the street was relocated so I knew it was big. You hate to miss something like that. I kept thinking, coach, let me in."

PROFILE: Lynn Fire Department

The Lynn, MA, Fire Department, where some of the country's busiest firehouses are located, was officially formed in 1835.

"That's when we became a paid department and we've been busy ever since," said Deputy Chief William Conway.

The department has 236 men in uniform, including Chief Curtis Numberg, Deputy Chief Conway, nine district chiefs, 16 captains, 42 lieutenants and 167 firefighters.

The department controls the city's fire alarm service, which has nine operators. Lynn's 911 emergency response system is the department's responsibility as well, with 12 call-takers. One of the district chiefs is the city's civil defense director. The administrative office staff is comprised of four civilians. The department budget for fiscal 1997 was $13 million.

Lynn, 10 miles north of Boston, occupies approximately 11 square miles. The population is just under 82,000. The city is divided into two fire districts, east and west, with a total of eight firehouses.

The department has eight engines and three ladders, one of which is a 95-foot tower. The others are 110-foot sticks. The department's newly acquired squad truck is manned by a safety officer. Other equipment includes two inflatable boats with outboard motors, two aging metal boats for sea and ice rescue, and a non-active 75-foot tower kept as a spare.

MedTrans, a private ambulance company, has the contract for the city. Lynn firefighters respond to EMS runs. The department has an arson squad, fire prevention bureau, training division and communications division.

During the year ending Dec. 31, 1995, the department logged 8,644 runs. Conway said that number is expected to increase because of additional EMS runs. The department took over the 911 response in May 1995. The total number runs is likely to approach 10,000 by the end of the year, Conway said.