The Second Great Lynn Fire: 15 Years Later

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 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.

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."

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."

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.

Although Lynn is a coastal city, it contains large tracts of woods and rocky highlands, including the 2,200-acre forested Lynn Woods Reservation. It has a mixed-use waterfront, including heavy industry. The housing stock ranges from high-rises for the elderly and the luxury condominium set, to crowded inner city neighborhoods and sprawling suburbs. The property is a blend of commercial and residential.

There are also two plastic companies, a chemical company and a General Electric Co. aircraft engine manufacturing plant. The GE facility had its own fire department but it was disbanded last year, leaving the Lynn Fire Department as its protector. GE retains its own fire safety inspectors.

David Liscio

David Liscio, a Firehouse® correspondent, is a reporter for the Daily Evening Item in Lynn, MA, and a call firefighter in Nahant, MA.