James Hardy, a Berklee College of Music student, was in his apartment at 290 Beacon St. in Boston’s Back Bay late this afternoon when chaos broke out.
Firefighters wearing oxygen masks rushed up and down the street, frantically battling a powerful blaze at 298 Beacon, Hardy recalled. Meanwhile, the department’s ladder trucks started deploying their equipment, deluging the four-story building with water.
Then, Hardy said, he smelled smoke.
“I hear all this yelling, and I look out my window. I could see firefighters running down the street with oxygen masks on, and cherrypickers going up,’’ Hardy recalled. “And the smoke spreading everywhere.’’
When the odor of smoke reached his apartment, Hardy made a move. “I could smell the smoke, so I left,’’ he said.
Kalya DaSilvia, 19, was in her Commonwealth Avenue dormitory when she smelled smoke, even though her window was closed.
“When we first got to the fire, thick black smoke was coming from that roof. About 15 minutes later, all of a sudden the smoke got really, really black,’’ DaSilvia said. “A huge flame came out the front door and broke the door open, broke the front windows open.’’
She added that shortly after that, she saw a Boston firefighter receiving emergency first aid from his comrades.
“They were doing compressions on him. They were trying to get him in an ambulance,’’ she said. “It was really chaotic ... The smoke was really thick.’’
Hardy and DaSilvia were among dozens of people gathered on Beacon Street this afternoon, where a nine-alarm fire raced through the four-story apartment building — killing two firefighters, according to two people briefed on the investigation.
Gilad Haas, who also lives in the Back Bay, said that shortly after 4 p.m., while firefighters were engaging the flames, he heard what he believed was the sound of an explosion coming from the burning building.
“I saw this explosion,’’ Haas said at the scene. “It was a burst, and then I saw the flames go up. It was definitely scary. I have such respect for the fire department.’’
Heavy smoke continued billowing out of the roof of the building shortly before 5 p.m. as more than a dozen onlookers stood behind yellow police tape cordoning off the scene.
Neighborhood resident Norma Jones said she exited her home after the fire started and saw flames shooting from the building.
“Big fire,” Jones said. “Look at that. It’s still burning. It’s sad when they go down, these brown houses. And all the history goes.”
Joshua Craft,26, who lives at 300 Beacon St., was at the nearby Unitarian Universalist center when he saw tweets reporting a fire on Beacon Street.
“As time went on, I kept seeing five alarms, seven alarms, nine alarms,’’ he said. “I started freaking out.”
When he first arrived on Beacon Street, he was about a block from his home, but he could not tell if it was standing, was on fire, or was undamaged because the smoke was so dense.
“Whenever the wind gusted and moved the smoke, I could see the building,’’ he said, adding that he could not tell its condition, however.Catalina Gaitan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @catalina_gaitan.Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.