A father's sacrifice, a son's calling
40 years after Vendome Hotel tragedy, family, friends honor fallen firefighters
Just weeks after his high school graduation, on the afternoon before Father’s Day, Richard Magee Jr. returned home around 4 p.m. to find his father headed out the door.
“Where are you going?” the 17-year-old asked his father, a 40-year-old Boston firefighter who typically didn’t begin his shift until 6 p.m.
“There’s a big blaze, I’m headed in early to give the guys some relief,” Magee Sr. responded, in what neither father nor son realized would be their final conversation.
That four-alarm fire, which broke out in the abandoned Vendome Hotel at the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and Dartmouth Street on the afternoon of June 17, 1972, drew more than 200 firefighters to the scene before an interior wall collapsed, killing Magee Sr. and eight others.
Despite multiple investigations, the cause of the fire remains unknown. No other fire in department history has taken as many firefighters’ lives.
Forty years later, Magee Jr., now 57 and a district fire chief with the Boston Fire Department, will return Sunday at noon for a wreath-laying ceremony at the site where his father perished.
Pride in his father’s sacrifice softens the sharp pain caused by memories from the Saturday night before Father’s Day 1972 that are revived in his mind each year.
“I think I had gotten him a card that year,” Magee Jr. said, adding that each Father’s Day he attempts to focus on the good times — memories of a hard working, caring father — rather than his father's death.
The moment he realized his father had been killed, he said, “I went numb.”
After the front porch encounter with his father, he headed to a park to hang out with friends. From there, he marveled at the smoke filling the sky, visible from most of the neighborhood. Not long after the hotel collapsed, his older sister tracked him down at the park, told him something terrible had happened, and insisted he come home.
Magee Jr. thought maybe his father had been hurt — not an uncommon occurrence for a firefighter.
But then he spotted his grandfather, also a firefighter, standing on the porch.
“If my father had been hurt, he would have been at the hospital,” Magee Jr. said. “I saw the look on his face, and I knew.”
The Rev. Daniel Mahoney, Boston Fire Department’s chief chaplain who was an assistant chaplain at the time, had rushed to the scene when the fire broke out, then left after the flames were subdued.
He was soon called back.
After three hours of being hosed down with water, one of the building’s steel beams — already weakened by construction underway on the former hotel — crumbled.
“When I got back, it was a pile of rubble,” he said. “All I could see was smoke and firefighters on top of the rubble moving debris with their bare hands.”
Firefighters worked until 2 a.m. rescuing 16 men and recovering the bodies of nine victims: Magee, 40; Thomas W. Beckwith, 35; Joseph F. Boucher, 27; Lieutenant Thomas J. Carroll, 52; Charles E. Dolan, 48; Lieutenant John E. Hanbury Jr., 46; John E. Jameson, 52; Paul J. Murphy, 36; and Joseph P. Saniuk, 48.
“It was really a heartbreaking event,” said Leo Stapleton, the Boston fire commissioner from 1984 to 1991 and a deputy chief at the time of the Vendome fire. “I knew all these guys, that’s the kind of job this is. We’re all brothers.”
The department and the entire city were devastated by the deaths, said Stapleton, 84.
“It was terrible for a while,” he said. “But when you’re a firefighter, you know that you have to go on.”
The first step after recovering the bodies was informing the families of the fallen firefighters, a dismal task that fell to Mahoney.
“I’ve had to inform loved ones of fallen firefighters 68 times,” Mahoney said. “It never gets easier. In fact, it gets harder each time.”
The sun was rising on Father’s Day as Mahoney approached the final house — that of Paul Murphy, where he shared the tragic news with Murphy’s son.
“Telling a son that his father was gone, on the morning of Father’s Day — it was heartbreaking,” Mahoney said.
In all, 23 children were left fatherless.
“He wasn’t just my father, he was my best friend,” said Phyllis Welby, who was 23 when her father, John Hanbury, was killed in the fire.
Welby remembers her father as a practical joker — known around the firehouse for his gags — as well as a dedicated father and grandfather.
“I remember coming home and my daughter’s face being covered in chocolate,” she said. “I was upset because here she is, not even 9 months old, covered in chocolate candy. He thought it was hilarious. That was him.”
One of nine children, Magee Jr. began adulthood with the loss of his father. He went on to work as a mechanic for Gillette before deciding, at age 28, to become a Boston firefighter himself.
“Becoming a firefighter was never the plan,” he said. “But then again, my father was a firefighter and my grandfather was a firefighter. It’s in my blood.”
Many of the children of the firefighters killed in the Vendome Hotel fire followed in their fathers’ footsteps.
Two of Dolan’s children joined the Fire Department — one as a firefighter, the other as a dispatcher — and a third became a police officer. Carroll also had a son who became a firefighter in Cambridge. Saniuk, the only bachelor of the group, had nephews who became firefighters.
On June 17, 1997, a monument featuring a firefighter’s helmet and turncoat cast in bronze was dedicated at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Dartmouth Street, in the shadow of the building that once was the Vendome Hotel.
Thousands of firefighters from across the country packed the Back Bay for the dedication, an act of solidarity Magee says underscores the fraternity that bonds firefighters.
“You spend nights in the same firehouse; it forms a bond that no other profession really has,” he said.
Four decades after his father’s death, and nearly 30 years as a firefighter himself, Magee Jr. still visits the memorial several times a year.
“This place has significance to me, and will always have significance to me,” Magee Jr. said Thursday as he stood next to the monument, gazing up at the former hotel, which is now home to apartments, offices, and a Spanish restaurant. “And this monument allows other people to understand that significance.”