From the Archives | May 23, 1964

256 hurt; not one life lost

Rubbish-collecting crew warns occupants to flee

This article is from the Boston Globe Archives. It was originally published on May 23, 1964.

A towering wall of flame raced through a tightly-packed tenement area in Dorchester Friday afternoon, leaving 35 dwellings destroyed or damaged and 300 persons homeless.

The general alarm fire raged unchecked for nearly three hours. Loss was estimated at $750,000.

IN area and number of buildings involved, it was Boston’s worst conflagration in more than 100 years.


Incredibly, there we no deaths, though flames spread with lightning speed through wooden three-deckers.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

But 31 persons were hospitalized, including five fireman who are in serious condition. At least 225 others were treated at the scene for minor injuries.

The fire burned through a four-block area between Andrew and Edward Everett sqs., on the South Boston-Dorchester line.

The area is bounded by Dorchester av., Boston st., Dorset st. and Howell st.

It is close to the Southeast Expressway and the artery was clogged for miles as motorists stopped to watch.


Hundreds of residents—elderly persons and young mothers with little children—fled for their lives ahead of the roaring, crackling flames.

They snatched up what few precious possessions they could lay hands on and ran in panic through a rain of blazing embers.

Nineteen of the three-family homes they left behind were burned to the ground, with everything they contained.

Sixteen others were damaged in varying degrees.

Homes outside as well as inside the fire perimeter were hastily evacuated.


Several thousand forlorn evacuees moved ina steady procession way from the danger zone.

At the height of the fire, flames leaped 150 feet above the doomed buildings.

A towering pillar of black smoke, visible for 20 miles, obscured the sun and turned afternoon into twilight.

An army of 1000 men and 150 pieces of apparatus from 25 communities battled to contain the blaze.

The movement of equipment necessitated by the fire covered eastern Massachusetts. It was the largest since the disastrous Plymouth forest fire.

While ruins still smouldered, state and city moved quickly to provide shelter and necessities of life for those permanently or temporarily homeless.

Friday night, 200 police patrolled the blackened, smoking area to guard against looting.

By then almost all the homeless had been relocated, at least for the time being.

“It is almost unbelievable that such a fire could be put out with no loss of life,” said Acting Chief John E. Clougherty as he surveyed the ruins.

First arriving police and firemen, with city workers already in the area, were largely responsible for getting people out ahead of the flames.

A five-man rubbish collecting crew ran through the houses on Bellflower st., warning occupants to flee for their lives.

The crew helped a woman and child from a blazing piazza, then dashed upstairs and dropped another mother and three youngsters into the arms of men below.

Cause unknown

Nobody knows what started the fire.

It apparently began on a back porch at 26 Bellflower st.

The first alarm, at 1:40 p.m., was followed within moments by a score of frantic calls from residents.

From its small beginning, the fire was spread with enormous speed by strong southwest winds and by hundreds of hot-air and heating fuel explosions.

Flames climbed the read of No. 26 and spread to homes of either side, then leaped across the narrow street. Within minutes a dozen tenements were ablaze.

As its size grew, the blaze generated heat so intense as to create its own wind and move directly against the stiff southwest breeze.

The dread “fire storm” was fought by a method developed in Hamburg, Germany, during the incendiary bombing raids of World War II.

On Two Fronts

Men and apparatus were massed in an “L” formation at the leeward side of the fire, facing the wind, to contain the flames.

On the other side, firemen directed their hoselines upwards to cool the great cloud of heat that, by radiation, was spreading the blaze in advance of the flames.

It was two and a half hours before they had slowed this radiation and brought the fire to a point where they knew it would spread no farther.

Then they had the job of dousing the raging flames within the fire perimeter.

At its worst, the heat was so intense that men could get no nearer than 500 feet without suffering skin burns, even under the cover of wide-spraying hoselines.

Veteran officers at the scene agreed that they had never seen such a fire.

250 roof fires

Streets in the district are narrow and congested. There are no open spaces to stop spreading the flames.

The fire was blown in the direction of Andrew sq., a half-mile away. Firebrands rained over the area.

Extra apparatus had to be detailed to put out 250 roof fires, some as far as two miles from the scene.

Just outside the fire perimeter, frantic householders wet down their homes with garden hoses as the flames approached.

Inside, tenement after tenement collapsed with a rumbling roar and a vast shower of sparks. Many firemen were burned or injured by falling debris.

On Bellflower st., there were 13 three-deckers totally destroyed and five damaged. On Dorset st., six destroyed and five damaged. On Howell st., five damaged.

2 children safe

The total estimate of loss was made by fire insurance agents at the scene. The fire department said only that it was “of great magnitude.”

In the confusion at the scene two little children could not be accounted for, and for hours were feared dead.

Late in the afternoon they turned up, unharmed, at the home of relatives.

One blessing was the older children were still school when the fire started.

Many returned to ind only cellar holes and charred timbers where their homes had stood when they left that morning.

Weeping and terrified, they stood huddled in little groups or wandered the debris-choked streets, looking for their families.

A vacant lot on Dorset was crammed with belongings carried out by fleeing residents.

Babies in arms

The exodus ahead of the devouring flames was pitiful. Young mothers ran with babies in their arms. Old people carried pets, religious statues—whatever seemed most precious.

One elderly woman in a wheel chair was pushed down in the street by a little boy as blazing embers dropped all around them.

Civilians helped firemen lay hoselines and carried the old and crippled to safety.

Scores of autos parked inside the fire area were burned. There was no time to move them out of harm’s way.

District Chief John Greene and his men were first on the scene, moments after the original alarm. Rounding into Bellflower st., they saw the tenements already ablaze.

Forced back

Chief Green saw flames jumping the street just in front of him.

He and his men had to make a hasty retreat.

They were forced steadily back towards Dorchester av. as the fire bore down on them before they had time to hook up hoselines.

Deputy Fred Clauss, on the scene soon after, ordered the fifth alarm, then called in the terse message:

“The whole area is afire. Send me everything you can lay hands on.”

Seven additional calls were ordered at short intervals to bring more equipment and men.

Twice in the early stages, the army of apparatus was forced to retreat and regroup because of the unbearable heat and the fast-spreading flames.

Three hundred Boston and 100 Metropolitan police officers were detailed to the fire scene and tremendous traffic jam it engendered.

Area roped off

They roped off the immediate fire area to keep civilians out of the way of emergency equipment. The ropes had to be continually moved as the fire spread.

All streets in the area, including the busy arteries of Dorchester av. and Southampton sts., were closed, as were off-ramps from the Expressway.

Hundreds of motorists abandoned their cars on the Expressway to watch the fire.

Embers touched off brush fires on both sides of the artery, causing smoke so thick that traffic was slowed to a creep.

Red Cross and Salvation Army disaster units were sent to the scene from 30 communities around Boston.

Forty first aid stations were set up to treat the steady stream of firemen suffering from smoke inhalation or painful minor injuries.

Forty of Boston’s 52 engine companies were at the scene. As nearby towns sent in equipment, other communities covered for them.

The resulting movement of apparatus involved towns as far as Plymouth on the south, Newburyport on the north and Worcester on the west.

While the fire still raged, Mayor Collins set up an emergency headquarters and directed city department heads to and fire victims.

The Boston Housing Authority said he had 75 vacant apartments nearby in nearby developments. They were made available free to the homeless.

Friday night Gov. Peabody and Congressman John W. McCormack, visited the fire ruins.

“Thank God there was nobody killed,” exclaimed the governor.

He opened the Victory Road Armory in Dorchester to provide shelter for evacuees.

The great fire was declared out at 9:57 p.m.