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2 firefighters die, 12 hurt in blaze

Responders trapped as flames engulf W. Roxbury restaurant, spread to adjacent businesses

More than 100 firefighters responded to a fire at a West Roxbury restaurant last night. A 3-ton air-conditioning unit partially crashed through the roof.
More than 100 firefighters responded to a fire at a West Roxbury restaurant last night. A 3-ton air-conditioning unit partially crashed through the roof. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Two Boston firefighters were killed and at least 12 others were injured Wednesday night as flames rushed through a restaurant in West Roxbury, collapsing the roof and trapping crews inside, public safety officials said.

The two veteran firefighters who died, Paul J. Cahill, 55, of Scituate and Warren J. Payne, 53, of Canton, were identified by the officials and a firefighter on the scene. They were the first deaths of firefighters in a fire since 1994.

Cahill and Payne both were assigned to the West Roxbury fire house on Centre Street, headquarters of Engine 30, Ladder 25.

At a press conference early today at Brigham and Women's Hospital, officials said Payne was the father of two. They said Cahill was the married father of two. Both had 25 years in the department.

"Tonight is a very sad night for the city of Boston,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said. "Two of our bravest have lost their lives in a fire in West Roxbury. Our prayers and offers of help are extended to the families of those two firefighters and the other firefighters who were injured in the line of duty. This is a dangerous job, and these firefighters answered the call."

Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser, "These brave men died in the line of duty for the people of Boston, and I ask that your prayers be with them and with their families. I also ask that you respect the privacy of their families. Thank you."

Ed Kelly president of the International Association of Fire Fighters local 718 said "the Boston firefighter’s family is in mourning. We lost two brothers, two brave men that went to work tonight to provide for their families and are not going home in the morning. We ask you to pray for their souls and for the brave and injured firefighters who are struggling to recover right now."

Responding to a question about the reaction of other firefighters, Kelly said, "Everyone's in mourning; everyone's in shock. The firefighters, we live together, we eat together, we know each others' families, we're like brothers. Tonight we lost two of our brothers. Everyone's devastated."

Cahill’s wife was vacationing on an island off Maine, and officials went to the area to bring her to Boston late Wednesday night.

A paramedic was also injured in the four-alarm fire, which broke out about 9 p.m. at the Tai Ho Mandarin and Cantonese Restaurant at 1727 Centre St. and quickly spread, damaging several adjacent stores, officials said.

Fire Chief Kevin P. MacCurtain said that a 3-ton air conditioning unit partially crashed through the roof of the restaurant but that it was unclear what role this played in the firefighter deaths and injuries. He said the first group of firefighters who responded to the blaze quickly became trapped and disoriented by the intense heat and smoke.

Other crews found the trapped firefighters and pulled them out, MacCurtain told reporters.

‘‘We’re doing a full investigation as to why that happened,’’ he said of the firefighters becoming trapped. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

MacCurtain said the first firefighters responded within two minutes of the call, which came in at 9:04 p.m. In all, more than 100 firefighters responded.

Jal Ghimire, 33, of Roslindale, said he was working in the kitchen of the Himalayan Bistro, an Indian restaurant in the same strip as Tai Ho, when he smelled smoke. He said four or five tables of customers were in the restaurant when black smoke began to fill the dining room. ‘‘The customers ran out,’’ he said. ‘‘They were scared.’’

The restaurant employees then rushed to the back of the kitchen to turn off gas valves. Later, a police officer ran into the restaurant, telling the employees, ‘‘You guys need to get out,’’ Ghimire said.

By the time the employees ran onto Centre Street, the Tai Ho restaurant was engulfed in flames. ‘‘It was a big fire, very big,’’ he said.

George E. Elhaddad, a 39-year-old cashier at the White Hen Pantry on Centre Street, said he was picking up food from a nearby restaurant when three employees from Tai Ho came running and asking him to call the police

When firefighters arrived, Elhaddad said, they broke the window to the restaurant to try to get inside. Just then, a huge ball of fire came bursting out of the restaurant.

‘‘I’ve never seen fire like this,’’ he said.

At least three other stores had apparent damage from the fire: The Ferns, a flower shop; L’Essence Art Gallery; and a pet-grooming store, the Continental Shoppe.

More than 100 firefighters responded, and dozens of onlookers gathered at the strip of one-story, yellow brick storefronts.

MacCurtain said officials do not believe the restaurant was open at the time.

Mayor Menino arrived at the scene of the fire about 10 p.m., and left after 10 minutes without making a statement. He later arrived at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where at least one firefighter was taken.

Witnesses said the fire initially sent flames flying at least 15 feet over the roof line and then grew higher.

‘‘We just started hearing sirens,’’ said Bryan Strickland, 18, of Roslindale, who works at West on Centre, a restaurant across the street from the fire. ‘‘I never saw anything like it. It happened real fast. It seemed like they had everything under control. That’s when we saw the firefighters coming out’’ on stretchers.

Firefighters wearing oxygen tanks stood in small groups on the sidewalk or poked their way through the broken glass and rubble of the storefronts.

At the West Roxbury station, two grim-looking firefighters who said they were from Brighton sat on a park bench outside about 10:30 p.m. They said they were just waiting for news, without giving their names.

Lenny Richardson, 35, a CVS manager from Jamaica Plain, stopped at the scene of the fire on his way home from work and stood in the middle of Centre Street, looking at the engine ladders and emergency vehicles.

‘‘Wow. It’s tragic,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s terrible. Let’s pray for the families. It’s like a scene from a movie.’’

Lieutenant Chris Stratton, a Boston EMS spokesman, said the two firefighters who later died were transported to Brigham and Women’s and Faulkner hospitals. Four other firefighters with lesser injuries were sent to Brigham and Women’s, and a paramedic, who Stratton said was one of the first responders on the scene, was sent to Boston Medical Center. Seven firefighters were taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

‘‘We expect the numbers to continue to rise for firefighters we transport,’’ Stratton said.

According to the Boston Fire Department, five Boston firefighters have died during or after fires since 1994. They include David Milton, who died earlier this year upon returning home from a shift at a firehouse; David Packard, who died of a heart attack after fighting a fire in 1999, Dick Murphy, died of a heart attack after fighting a fire, also in 1999; James Ellis, who died from injuries after he fell down a fire pole when responding to a call in 1996; and Steve Minehan who died in a warehouse fire in Charlestown in 1994.

Wednesday night’s fire occurred about three miles from where a popular Jamaica Plain Cuban restaurant burned to the ground in July 2005. The fire at the El Oriental De Cuba, which has been rebuilt, was part of a string of arson fires that hit Jamaica Plain. The fire came less than two weeks after two firefighters were killed in New York, near ground zero.

This story was also reported by Michael Levenson, Matt Carroll, Maria Cramer, David Abel, Tracy Jan, and Brian Ballou of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Dan Peleschuk, John Guilfoil, and Marc Robins.

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