Firefighters battle 9-alarm blaze in Back Bay tower

Three injured as scores called to douse flames

By Milton J. Valencia and Ursula Munn
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / April 8, 2010

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Residents heard the fire alarms just before 2 p.m., but thought little of them as they made their way down the stairs of their 10-story condominium building in the Back Bay.

But the alarm turned out to be the largest firefighting operation the city has seen in recent years — flames roared out the seventh-floor windows, and smoke billowed throughout. Firefighters used an oxygen mask to tend to a woman on the top floor, and residents were turning frantic along crowded Massachusetts Avenue. One resident was brought out on a stretcher.

The conditions of the fire, on a record-setting hot day, in a cramped, century-old building at a dense corner of Beacon Street and Massachusetts Avenue, made for the largest and most difficult operation the city has seen in recent years. Nine alarms were sounded, and roughly 180 of the 264 city firefighters on duty were sent to the blaze.

“I didn’t know what to think,’’ said Hiroko Massarelli, a 43-year-old woman who lives on the second floor and was anxiously waiting for her daughter to come home from school.

“I thought it was just a tiny fire in someone’s kitchen, but then I could see the huge flames.’’

In the end, there was only one serious injury.

Firefighters said some pets, including cats and dogs, might have died in the fire, but all residents in the 69-unit building at the time of the blaze were evacuated. Four people had to be rescued, and two were brought to a Boston hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation that was not life-threatening. At least one firefighter was hospitalized with chest pains.

The cause of the fire had not been determined by yesterday evening, but firefighters said it originated in a unit on the seventh floor.

The strength of the fire sent flames dancing to the eighth floor, and thick black smoke billowed up the rest of the building through vents and staircases, filling the small condominium units on the upper floors.

“We had a tremendous amount of difficulty moving into it,’’ Fire Chief Ronald Keating said at the scene yesterday.

The day’s record heat also made for difficult conditions for the firefighters, who had to climb many flights of stairs.

Firefighter Joe Hughes, a 37-year veteran of the department, was among the first to arrive on the scene. He helped rescue two residents amid the chaos. One, a 32-year-old woman, had inhaled a lot of smoke and was disoriented, he said.

“I said, ‘She needs the face piece more than me,’ ’’ said Hughes, who placed his own mask on the woman and descended eight stories with her to a waiting ambulance.

Upon reentering the blazing complex, Hughes aided in the rescue of a young woman on the roof in “full cardiac arrest, with no pulse and no respirations.’’

Firefighter Scott Coyne performed CPR, while Lieutenant Robert Dean gave her his face piece, Hughes said.

“Things spiral really quickly,’’ Hughes, of Walpole, said, adding that the hot weather, the heavy smoke, and the old building’s narrow stairwells and lack of a sprinkler system all contributed to the confusion.

“It could have been catastrophic if it was at nighttime,’’ he said. “We’re thankful that we were able to get the people out.’’

The lack of sprinklers was of particular concern to fire officials. The building, formerly known as the Cambridge House and built as a residential hotel in 1895, was grandfathered in from building fire codes that went into effect 25 years ago. Condominium units in such buildings, even if they were sold after the law went into effect, are exempt, said Steve MacDonald, a Fire Department spokesman.

Richard Steffenghagen, who lives on the 10th floor, said residents discussed the idea of installing sprinklers more than 20 years ago but decided not to after learning that they were exempt and that it would be costly.

“The discussions went on for some time, but it was a matter of spending many hundreds of thousands of dollars,’’ Steffenghagen said.

MacDonald estimated yesterday that the blaze caused $3.5 million in damage. Recently, a one-bedroom unit in the 150-plus-resident building was listed for sale at $275,000.

The drama of the fire drew hundreds of onlookers. People lined up around the building to watch the operation as firefighters hoisted four ladders to spray water into the structure. Ken Lee, who lives a block away, said he saw the building in flames and a woman leaning out a top-floor window, signaling for help. Smoke poured out the window.

A firefighter arrived and appeared to put an oxygen mask to her face, Lee said.

Arielle Guitar, 20, who lives on the eighth floor, returned to her home to see her apartment windows broken, firefighters pouring water inside.

“Nobody knows how bad the damage is,’’ she said. “Our doors are kicked in, and we don’t have any windows. They’re all blown out.’’

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story incorrectly characterized Joe Hughes, one of the firefighters who helped save residents. Hughes is a 37-year veteran of the department; he is not 37 years old.

John R. Ellement and John M. Guilfoil of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



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