Preliminary investigation at JFK Library plays down possibility of explosion

Smoke billowing from the JFK Library earlier today.
Photo by Mark Forrest

A fire and possible explosion this afternoon at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum prompted a full-scale investigation by local, state, and federal authorities to determine whether the incidents were linked to the deadly Boston Marathon blasts.

This afternoon, Police Commissioner Edward Davis said a preliminary investigation indicated that the JFK incident may not have been an explosion.

The fire broke out shortly before 3 p.m. — around the same time as the Marathon blasts several miles away — in an HVAC system in a section of the complex opened in 2011 that houses offices, a classroom, and some archival material, said Rachel Flor, a library spokeswoman.

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Everyone evacuated the building in Dorchester safely and no injuries were reported, she said.

“There was a fire, and it’s still unclear how it began,” Flor told reporters. “We did hear something that sounded like an explosion.”

Throughout the afternoon, library officials emphasized the blaze appeared to be a “mechanical fire.”

Thomas Putnam, the library’s director, told reporters around 4 p.m. that a bomb squad was coming in as a precautionary measure in light of the Marathon blasts.

Shortly afterward, Boston police and State Police cars swarmed the library parking lot, along with authorities from the US Secret Service and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

They ordered all employees and visitors off the property, as they conducted a full sweep for bombs.

Concern about a possible connection to the Back Bay explosions escalated in the afternoon when Davis said during a televised press briefing that there had been a possible explosion and a possible incendiary device had been found at the library. That caused reporters to flock to the scene.

But by evening, Davis appeared to back away from his earlier statement, saying only that authorities were investigating at the scene.

The fire caused some damage to the exterior of the building. It blackened the area of what appeared to be a side entrance and the windows were shattered.

Inside, damage was caused mostly by smoke and water and not that much from the fire itself. “We don’t anticipate damage to the collections,” Putnam said.

James Benton, a doctoral student from Georgetown University who was doing research at the library, was in the cafeteria when the fire alarm went off.

“The evacuation was very orderly,” he said. “It was not high drama.”

Once outside, he said he saw a couple of people trying to put out small flames with extinguishers. But then the flames abruptly grew very large and the smoke turned from white to black. Benton compared the sudden escalation to the lighting of a barbecue grill.

“Suddenly, a big whoosh,” he said.