The West Roxbury restaurant where two firefighters died Wednesday in a blaze fueled by built-up grease in the ceiling had a history of code violations for greasy equipment and vents and was eight months overdue for a health inspection that would have included a review of the ventilation system.
City records show that health inspectors last visited Tai Ho Mandarin and Cantonese Restaurant in June 2006, when it was cited for minor violations, but received a passing grade. A year earlier, health inspectors cited the restaurant for excessive grease on the fume hood and other kitchen equipment. Under state regulations, the restaurant should have been inspected every six months, but the city failed to conduct the last two required reviews.
Thomas J. Goodfellow, director of the Inspectional Services Department's Division of Health Inspections, refused to say why city inspectors had not been to the restaurant for more than a year, but acknowledged that the restaurant was overdue for an inspection.
Health inspectors are not charged with detecting fire hazards, but do inspect kitchen equipment and ventilation for grease buildup. The question of whether regular inspections would have detected the problem received varying responses from City Hall.
Goodfellow said he did not know whether an inspection of Tai Ho would have caught the grease buildup. "Inspectors can't see the pipe above the hooded area," he said. When it was last inspected, some 14 months ago, he said, "no grease had leaked down."
Dorothy Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said there is no connection between the irregular health inspections and the undetected fire hazard at the restaurant.
Fire officials said yesterday that a preliminary investigation indicated that grease that had seeped over time from the ventilation system into a 10-inch crawl space ignited and burned undetected in the ceiling for more than an hour. Fire officials said it is still unclear what provided the spark. When the firefighters of Engine 30 and Ladder 25 arrived for what they believed was a routine kitchen fire, the ceiling suddenly collapsed and they became trapped in the deadliest blaze for Boston firefighters in 26 years. Two firefighters were killed, and 10 more were treated for injuries and released.
As the city yesterday mourned the deaths of Warren J. Payne, 53, a 19-year veteran, and Paul J. Cahill, 55, a 14-year veteran, the Boston Fire Department launched an investigation into the fatal fire. Veteran fire officials said they were stunned by how quickly the blaze forced firefighters to shift from extinguishing the fire to get to their dead and wounded. Only 11 minutes elapsed between the first 911 call and the moment a firefighter caught in the blaze hit the panic button on his radio.
"They ran a hose line into the building, thinking to themselves 'This one is going to be easy,' " Fire Chief Kevin P. MacCurtain said. "When they started to extinguish the fire, something unexpected happened, something that we haven't seen at this type of fire."
Mourners yesterday piled flowers outside the Engine 30 and Ladder 25 station house on Centre Street, five blocks from the charred restaurant. Governor Deval Patrick ordered flags to half-staff. Fans observed a moment of silence during the Red Sox-Yankees game in the Bronx.
"We are all aware of the risks our public safety officers take to protect us," Menino said. "They always put our needs before their own. That doesn't make it any easier to accept the harsh reality we find ourselves in today."
As donations poured into funds for the firefighters' families, problems with the restaurant's maintenance came to light. Under state regulations, the city is required to conduct health inspections at restaurants every six months. In addition to food safety issues, city health inspectors are supposed to check the hoods over cooking equipment for buildup and the filters between the hoods and the pipes that take greasy exhaust up to the roof.
"If the inspector notices that they're dirty or that there's an accumulation of grease on there, they will be cited," said Goodfellow.
The Fire Department also conducts its own random checks at restaurants and in response to complaints, but is not required to regularly conduct inspections.
Steve MacDonald, a Fire Department spokesman, said fire inspectors have cited the restaurant five times since 2001. In April 2001 and March 2005, the restaurant was cited for not cleaning the hoods over the stoves and the ceiling ducts, which drew grease and hot gas from the kitchen to the roof outside. MacDonald said the restaurant fixed the problems after being cited, and the Fire Department was satisfied.
When city health inspectors went to the restaurant in September 2005, they found a series of health code violations, including excessive grease on the kitchen hood, lights, vents, and pipes. The inspector ordered the restaurant to clean the equipment, but records show that the inspector never verified that the violation was corrected. The city's own rules require that the inspector check to make sure the violation is corrected at the next visit, but there is no record of this in the 2006 inspection.
The restaurant was next inspected in June 2006, when health inspectors found more violations, including greasy cardboard boxes being used for storage. The staff removed the boxes during the inspection, and the restaurant received a passing, but not exemplary, grade.
A woman who answered the phone listed for Tai Ho's owner hung up on a reporter seeking comment yesterday. The building's owner, John C. Kennedy Jr. of Newton, also declined to comment.
In Boston, the number of restaurant inspectors has been cut from 22 to 18 in the last five years. According to federal guidelines, the city should have between 28 and 30 inspectors. The inspectors are responsible for overseeing 4,799 licensed establishments that serve food.
Menino, citing budget constraints, has said in the past that he cannot afford to restore the four positions that were cut, much less hire 10 or 12 inspectors.
Fire officials believe the mix of flames and toxic gases trapped in the ceiling intensified when a massive air conditioner fell through the roof and into the ceiling, providing fresh oxygen for the flames. At the same time, firefighters may have poked at the ceiling from below to ventilate the fire, fire officials said. A fire ball erupted, engulfing Payne. Cahill died in the smoke and heat.
Payne was among the first firefighters to rush inside the restaurant. He searched for patrons and employees, unaware they had all fled. Cahill was right behind him, holding the nozzle of the fire hose and spraying water at the kitchen ceiling. Suddenly, the ceiling collapsed, unleashing the fireball. A firefighter hit the panic button on his radio. When emergency workers outside radioed back, they received no response.
Michael Levenson of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Walter V. Robinson contributed to this report.