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The Boston Globe

Metro

July 6, 1984

Fatal Beverly rooming house fire was work of arsonist, authorities say

Beverly firemen feel the effects of exhaustion.

Janet Knott/Globe file photo

Beverly firemen feel the effects of exhaustion.

This article is from the Globe archives. It originally ran on July 6, 1984. The death toll from the fire would later rise to 15.

The Independence Day fire that raced through a three-story rooming house here and killed 14 people was the work of an arsonist, authorities said yesterday.

”This was deliberate,” Beverly Mayor Frederick (Jack) Monahan said yesterday. “Hopefully we will find that mad person with a match.” Monahan called the discovery a “horrifying development in a horrifying story.”

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A source close to the probe by local and state officials said that investigators are looking into the “strong possibility” that the 4 a.m. blaze at the Elliott Chambers rooming house at 434 Rantoul st. was set by a former resident who was angry at the owners or at a fellow tenant.

The front door of the rooming house was kept locked, leading investigators to believe the arsonist either had a key or knew someone in the building. Officials believe the blaze was started at two separate locations inside the wood-frame structure.

”We’re looking at people who have lived here in the past,” said State Fire Marshal Joseph A. O’Keefe. “We’re looking at anyone with any kind of connection to that building. But we do not have a suspect.”

”In some arson cases, we never find the person who did it,” O’Keefe added. “I hope we have good luck on this one.”

The Massachusetts Property Insurance Underwriters Assn. posted a $5000 reward for information leading to the apprehension of the arsonist. Investigators have set up a number for callers with tips: 1-800-682-9229.

The fire was the deadliest in Massachusetts since 492 people were killed at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in 1942.

Many residents of the rooming house were deinstitutionalized mental patients or transients. Deputy Police Chief William Terry called the Elliott Chambers “the Pine Street Inn of Beverly,” referring to the Boston shelter for homeless.

Thirteen of the 36 residents of the Elliott Chambers died of burns or smoke inhalation when the fast-moving fire erupted. A 14th victim was killed when he leapt from a third-floor room trying to escape the flames.

Five of the dead remained unidentified last night. Officials said yesterday they do not believe any bodies are left in the building, of which the top two stories were destroyed.

Six residents of the rooming house were still hospitalized yesterday.

Temporary housing for some of the 22 people left homeless by the fire will be provided by Endicott Junior College in Beverly.

But finding permanent homes for the displaced residents, several of whom are alcoholics or have emotional problems, will be more difficult. No public housing is currently available in the Beverly area, said Salvation Army Major Daisy Ticehurst.

In the wake of the fire, a number of state and local officials called for laws that would require sprinklers and other advanced safety systems in the hundreds of similar rooming houses throughout the Commonwealth.

”The double tragedy of this fire is that the building met all relevant codes and that the fire department responded within two minutes [of the alarm],” said Monahan.

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis said he is opposed to a new law requiring sprinklers in all such buildings, saying it would drive up the cost of housing.

State Public Safety Director Charles Barry said no system could offer complete safety against an arsonist. “If a person has a particular mindset to set a building on fire, I don’t know how you prevent that.”

Yesterday, a dozen local, state and federal investigators were on the scene, sifting through the charred wreckage in search of clues. A chemist from the Department of Public Safety performed tests on debris, seeking signs of gasoline or another accelerant, while other investigators photographed virtually every square inch of the gutted interior.

”The story of the crime is in that building,” said O’Keefe.

Beverly fire officials said yesterday the rooming house had been the site of numerous small blazes over the past year or so, but that those were mostly mattress or wastebasket fires and appeared to have no connection to Wednesday’s fatal fire.

There have been several other deliberately set fires in Beverly in recent months, but Fire Chief Dean Palmer said those, too, do not appear to be related to the Elliott Chambers blaze.

However, investigators are pondering a possible connection with a false fire alarm sounded at the Washington School 20 minutes before the rooming house fire. The school is diagonally across the street from the Elliott Chambers.

O’Keefe said there were 36 people in the building when the fire started. All have been accounted for, he said, although five of the badly charred bodies have not been positively identified.

”We have the names and the bodies,” he said. “But we have not been able to match all the names to all the bodies.”

Forensic specialists, including a dentist, were still going about the task of identifying the remains by using dental charts and jewelry found on the bodies. But some of the victims had no charts, no jewelry and no family to identify them.

The Associated Press reported that Barry said that the arsonist set two fires in the turn-of-the-century building, one just inside the front door and another on the second-floor stairwell. Investigators on the scene refused to confirm or deny this.

Former residents and city officials described the Eliott Chambers as seedy.

But Pauline Flaxer, co-owner of the building, called that characterization unfair: “They are saying all terrible things [about the Elliott Chambers],” she said, adding that she and her husband have owned the structure for 37 years. “It served a need.”

Contributing reporter Mark Miller assisted with this report.

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