At the firehouse, seeking solace

Canton firefighter Butch King draped black bunting on the front of the Ladder 26 firehouse on Huntington Avenue. Canton firefighter Butch King draped black bunting on the front of the Ladder 26 firehouse on Huntington Avenue. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Megan Woolhouse and Matt Collette
Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2009
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When firefighter Glen Campbell woke up yesterday morning, the world was different, he said. His longtime friend and mentor, the man who "taught me everything I know," had died.

There was little question as to where he needed to be: the red-brick firehouse on Huntington Avenue where he and Kevin M. Kelley had once worked together. Like so many other Boston firefighters yesterday, he went to the station for camaraderie and whatever comfort could be found.

"We just hang together, be together, and tell stories," Campbell said, standing in a crowd of firefighters who gathered at the station yesterday. Looking at the other somber firefighters as they shared remembrances and the occasional hug, he said, "Sitting at home is not going to do it for us."

The firehouse on Huntington Avenue was a refuge yesterday not only for firefighters, but also for a community shocked by the sudden loss. The people who live and work in this neighborhood amid imposing hospitals, sprawling college campuses, and apartment buildings know the firefighters of the Huntington Avenue station, the firefighters who respond to countless false alarms, minor medical calls, and apartment fires.

And the firefighters got to know their neighbors, throwing open their doors in warm weather, playing basketball on nearby courts, and pulling the occasional prank on a passerby.

Kelley's death pulled back the veil, a grim reminder of the mortal risks that come with the job.

Flowers, cards, and mementos piled up outside the building yesterday. Cars slowed as they passed. A young woman jogging by halted abruptly and gasped at the sight of the memorial's makeshift cross bearing Kelley's name.

Girma Belay, executive director of Roxbury Tenants of Harvard, which owns Mission Park where the crash occurred, said he knew Kelley and the firefighters involved in the crash.

"I can tell you, we felt like one of us were lost," he said.

Black bunting hung along the exterior of the station, and the flag atop the building was at half staff. The middle bay where Ladder 26 used to sit was empty. Station Captain Arthur Johnson said being with other firefighters yesterday at Kelley's beloved firehouse where he spent so much of his time seemed like the right thing to do. The two were working together Friday just before the call came in. Johnson said he knew something had gone terribly wrong when he heard yelling from his radio.

"The guys from the back [of the firetruck] were saying, 'I need help!' " Johnson said. "I knew it wasn't good."

Some firefighters at other stations who knew Kelley heard the screaming on the radio but could not leave their posts. Other firefighters said yesterday that even at the height of the crisis when the truck was rushing out of control down the steep hill, Kelley thought to sound an air horn to warn motorists and pedestrians of the danger.

Campbell said it was Kelley who mentored him and helped him move up in the department. He is now a lieutenant. Recalling his friend, Campbell's eyes filled with tears.

Kelley liked to tell stories, long ones that he could drag out.

"You wouldn't get the full story until you were ready to leave in the morning," he said.

Johnson described Kelley as a "family man first," with his dedication to the station "a close, very close, second."

Bonded by the long hours spent together and the ever-present possibility of death, firefighters at the station said they knew many of the details of Kelley's home life, his wife, and three adult daughters and how he used to take them to Disney World as children.

Lieutenant John Soares, his voice cracking, added: "His family, they don't know us as much as we know them."

Campbell said he and several other firefighters had visited Kelley's family and planned to visit Robert Bernard O'Neill. O'Neill was in the driver's seat when the firetruck went out of control on one of Boston's steepest hills Friday afternoon. He was released from the hospital yesterday. Two other firefighters received minor injuries.

Yesterday, people in the community offered their sympathy and support.

Richard Craven, who works nearby at Children's Hospital in the parking department, stood quietly in front of the station in the bitter cold with his 13-year-old daughter, Alana. He wanted to pay his respects, he said, even though he didn't know Kelley or the other firefighters at the station other than seeing them respond to emergencies at the hospital.

"I feel a kinship with them," he said. "These people have a thankless job and I'm just a regular citizen trying to show my respect."

Nancy Clerveau, who lives on Mission Hill, said firefighters are always responding to false alarms and to calls at halfway houses in the neighborhood. She said she points the firefighters out to her two grandsons whenever they're out, calling them "role models."

One of her grandsons, 6-year-old Exavion, was accompanying her on a trip to Star Market.

"He wanted to be a firefighter. . . . And his brother, too."

She shuddered to think what could happen. "And I can see myself just sitting by the phone, pulling out my hair," she said.

Derek Miller, 21, a student at Northeastern University who lives nearby, passes by the fire station daily, where it's not unusual to see the firefighters open the big doors and pull chairs up to the sidewalk in warm weather.

"I see them out there all the time, they're always there," Miller said.

He recalled falling for a prank in front of the firehouse one day.

"I remember I was walking by, and I see a five- or ten-dollar bill on the ground. I set all my stuff down, and I reach down to grab it, and it zips right by. And I look up, and I see they pulled it away - it was connected to a piece of clear wire. They're all right inside the station, and they were laughing."

At Il Mondo Pizzeria on the corner of Huntington Avenue and Smith Street, Shukri Ighrayev said he felt sadness.

"They were doing their jobs," he said. "I'm here - I make pizza. I'm in no danger."

Twenty-three-year-old Siobhan Soucie, who lives near the scene of the crash on Mission Hill, said she got to know the firefighters at the Huntington Avenue station walking home when she was a student at Northeastern. Yesterday, she brought a bouquet of flowers, wrapped in pink, green, and orange tissue paper to leave with the others piled in front of the station.

"I think they're a bunch of great guys," she said. "You feel safer 'cause they're around."

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at

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