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Captain recalls frantic effort to save trapped firefighters

Standing in the Engine 33 firehouse in the Back Bay today, Boston Fire Captain Neal Mullane’s head and face were scorched and burned, scars from the frantic effort he and other firefighters launched Wednesday to rescue their colleagues trapped by flames in the basement of 298 Beacon St.

Mullane, who is assigned to Ladder 18 in South Boston, was designated as the commander of the rapid intervention team Wednesday, a platoon of firefighters positioned at every fire to lead efforts to extricate firefighters if they get in trouble.

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“We were the RIT, the rapid intervention team. Our job is to get firefighters who are trapped out,’’ Mullane said. “That’s why they send an extra ladder truck.’’

While driving across Boston, Mullane said he listened to the radio communication between firefighters who had reached the burning building before he did, especially the transmissions from the firefighters using the call sign of Engine 33 who had declared “Mayday,’’ signaling they were in distress.

The call came from Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr., 43, and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy, 33, who were trapped in the basement by the raging fire. When his team arrived, Mullane said, a chief ordered them to descend several stairs to reach the front of the basement where radio transmissions from Engine 33 had said they had gone for safety.

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“We grabbed a hose line, we charged it [and] we made a push as hard we could to get to that stairwell and get down those stairs,’’ Mullane said.

“We were trying to get down the stairs. We just couldn’t. Then there was a backdraft,” he said, using a firefighting term for what is essentially a smoke explosion.

As he spoke, Mullane’s physical injuries were obvious, and unmistakable. His right ear was purplish from a burn and his right eyebrow was half burned off. The hair on the right side of his head was burned off, and there was a burn on the right side of the back of his head.

“I got blown down the stairs. Eight of us got blown down the stairs,’’ Mullane said. “It burnt my face. It blew my mask right off my face. It blew me out. It burnt my eyes.’’

Mullane said others also participated in the rescue attempt. “Everybody was trying to get them,’’ he said. “Everybody turned into the RIT team.’’

But, Mullane said, the wind-stoked fire was too strong for him, his colleagues, or any other fire department, to get into the basement.

“It was superheated gas. Just – fire coming up the stairs at us,’’ he said. “We did everything that we could to perform our job, but the conditions were just horrific. [In] 20 years, I’ve never seen anything like that.’’

The crestfallen Mullane added some final thoughts.

“Our mission was to find them and get them out, but it was impossible. There was just too much fire,’’ he said. “We got in as far as we could and the conditions did not allow us to move any further....There was the backdraft. That’s when they were [ordering] everybody out.’’

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.
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