At first they thought it was fog, but seconds later the acrid smell of smoke assaulted their noses and Rosemary and Al Dominick knew something was burning.
As Rosemary Dominick looked for the source, stepping first into the alley behind their Beacon Street brownstone, she said, sirens wailed out front as firetrucks and police cruisers arrived to battle the blaze.
Burning was an apartment building at 298 Beacon St., a home almost directly across the street.
“That smell. You know it’s a fire. It’s an unmistakable smell,” she said standing in front of the dining room bay window, which looks out onto the street.
This is a neighborhood of century-old homes, whose bricks connect for blocks at a time. Neighbors said this is the street where New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady lived with his supermodel wife, Gisele Bundchen, and their children.
On Wednesday, it was a neighborhood paralyzed by a fire yet buoyed by the tireless work of the firefighters, two of whom lost their lives battling the blaze.
“It gives you a new appreciation for what they do,” Dominick said.
The couple, who moved from St. Louis into their 120-year-old home in October, watched as firefighters hoisted massive yellow hoses up ladders extending four floors.
But a throng of their neighbors stood at Exeter Street, unable to get to their homes on Beacon. Peter Weiss, 76, lives just two houses down from the fire, and he stood looking toward all of the smoke with his 9-year-old dog Lilly.
He received a phone call from his alarm company, saying that there was a fire near his home. Lilly was home alone, so he called a neighbor who went and retrieved the dog, red doggie jacket and all.
He said authorities told him he cannot go home and he did not know when he will be able to return.
“What . . . are you going to do,” he said. “I got my dog. My wife wasn’t home, she’s at theater.”
Joshua Craft, 26, was at the nearby Unitarian Universalist Association when Twitter alerted him to the blaze next door to his Beacon Street home.
“As time went on I kept seeing five alarms, seven alarms, nine alarms. I started freaking out,” he said.
He went to his boss and immediately left, making the 15-minute walk to Exeter Street, where fierce winds made the chilly day feel that much colder. The wind carried the spray from the fire hoses for blocks and blew the smoke for miles.
From the Dominicks’ window orange flames could be seen flickering from the roof, dying down and flaring up again and again. They watched plumes of black smoke billow toward the sky and cover the Back Bay in a smoky haze.
That was at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
What the Dominicks could not see from their vantage point was the hose drenching the back of the building. They could not see the firefighters, one with his head wrapped in white gauze, who had been helped into an ambulance on Fairfield Street between Beacon and Marlborough streets.
The smoke was thick enough to set off fire alarms at homes along Marlborough Street, where one resident said he saw the plumes from Post Office Square before he got home.
Sherley Smith could not get home, though she tried — again — to convince a police officer to let her pass, pointing to her building at Fairfield and Beacon streets.
Her purple sweater did little to fight the evening’s 30-degree weather.
The officer suggested walking down to Gloucester Street, cutting through an alley and then making her way up Back Street.
“I usually pull into the garage, so I don’t need a jacket,” she said, face reddening in the wind. Her husband had called to say he made it inside after work, which is what prompted her second try. For the past 90 minutes, Smith had sat inside St. Botolph Club.
As she made her way inside the midrise building at 5:45 p.m., firefighters continued drenching the burning building with water.
And as the sun began to sink, smoke still billowed from 298 Beacon St.Akilah Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922. Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.