When he came on the job 12 years ago, Eddie Walsh thought he had hit the lottery: He got assigned to Ladder 15 on Boylston Street in the Back Bay.
It takes a special kind of firefighter to work in the Boylston Street firehouse. They have to be ambassadors as much as firefighters.
“It’s a busy house,” firefighter Steve MacDonald explained. “It’s a hazmat company. They help Cambridge on multiple alarms. And the Back Bay gets a lot of calls. But it’s the most public firehouse in the city. You’re interacting with people every day. The college kids. Red Sox fans. People in town for conventions across the street. You have to love people.”
Walsh loved people. So did Mike Kennedy, a former Marine assigned to Ladder 15. When Walsh made lieutenant a couple years ago, it was bittersweet. He wanted the promotion, but he didn’t want to leave Boylston Street. But that’s what happens when you make lieutenant, and so he worked at other firehouses, waiting for seniority, waiting for an opening. He wanted to come back as a lieutenant on Ladder 15, because as a tall guy, he was a born ladder man. But, when the opening came up, he settled for the next best thing, lieutenant on Engine 33, because it shares the Boylston Street house with Ladder 15.
When the call came in at 2:43 p.m. Wednesday for a fire at a four-story building at 298 Beacon St., Deputy Chief Joe Finn knew it would be bad. The wind was howling. Oxygen feeds a fire. The wind is oxygen on steroids. Finn, a Marine as much as a firefighter, assumed command of a fire that was growing more ferocious by the minute.
The firefighters from Engine 33 responded to the ground-level basement in the rear of the building. One of the firefighters geared the pump, another hooked up the hose. Though normally assigned to Ladder 15, Kennedy was detailed to Engine 33 on Wednesday, and he led Walsh, his lieutenant, into the burning basement with a hose that firefighters call a big line.
Walsh had the shoulder mike, and he kept asking for more water.
“It’s hot down here!” he yelled.
“They need water,” a dispatcher radioed.
The hose was most likely burned through, behind them.
They had only been putting water on the fire for a couple of minutes before it went to hell. If he had to guess, Finn thinks a window blew out, and the wind tunnel it created fed a fireball that washed over Walsh and Kennedy like a wave.
“We’re in the basement!” Walsh yelled. “Somebody get us!”
The dispatcher reassured them help was on the way.
Captain Neal Mullane led an extraction team to get to their two trapped comrades, but the flames washed over them, burning them, pushing them back.
It took a while, but they got Kennedy out and began chest compressions, rushing him to Mass. General. But there was nothing they could do. They couldn’t get to Walsh. Some firefighters from Engine 42 saw where Walsh fell, but they couldn’t get to him. The fire was so intense.
It was left to Joe Finn to make the hardest decision any chief can make, and that was everybody get out, and nobody go in. They had to leave Walsh until it was safe to go in and get his body. For Finn, as good a man and as good a firefighter as this city has, it was excruciating.
“The hardest decision in the world,” said Richie Paris, a firefighter and president of Local 718, who was standing with Finn when he made the call. “But Joe made the right call. It was the only call.”
The fire kept lashing out, as if it were incensed that anyone would dare to try to tame it. At one point, it blew District 3 Chief Greg Mackin and Safety Chief Frank Jones off the front steps, like a bomb. They were burned, their faces blackened, and it looked bad for a while, but both chiefs were rushed to the hospital and will recover.
As he tried to knock down a fire that was knocking down his men, Joe Finn the fire chief was wrestling with Joe Finn the father: His son, firefighter Brandon Finn assigned to Ladder 15, was unaccounted for.
“Edzo,” Joe Finn said finally, turning to Ed Kelly, a firefighter on Tower Ladder 17, “can you run around back and see if you can find my son?”
Kelly and Paris ran and found Brandon Finn, safe, working the fire.
It was some four hours before the fire was put down enough, and the structural engineers had given their reluctant blessings, that the firefighters from Engine 33 and Ladder 15 were allowed to remove their fallen lieutenant. There is a protocol, a protocol of honor, and the firefighters from 33 and 15 followed it, even as everybody else worried the weakened, sodden walls would collapse on them.
They placed Walsh in a Stokes basket, then covered him with a crisp, new American flag. As they did this, the fire broke out again on the top floor, and Finn told his ladder crews to hit it with all they had.
While half the firefighters continued to work the fire, the others stood at attention and saluted, as did the state troopers who had stopped traffic on Storrow Drive, as the firefighters from Engine 33 and Ladder 15 walked in a long line with their dead lieutenant, to a waiting ambulance.
Out front, the firefighters from Tower Ladder 17 and Ladder 26 continued to pour water on the fire that had exacted a terrible price as the ambulance headed toward Boston Medical Center, where Walsh’s family waited and wiped their eyes.
Paris, the head of the firefighters union, had needed backup. Ed Kelly had his back. So did the Rev. Dan Mahoney, the firefighters’ priest. So did Danny Keeler, the Boston police detective sergeant who proves every day there is no such thing as a former Marine. So did Dr. Mike Hamrock, who before he became a doctor was a Boston firefighter.
It was left to Paris and his crew to break the news. Paris and Kelly called Walsh’s wife, Kristin. She was at a school meeting. The three Walsh kids were home with a babysitter.
“We’ve gotta talk,” Paris told her, while trying to keep it together because this was the hardest thing he ever had to do.
She knew, because all firefighters’ wives know, and she wanted Paris to say it on the phone, but he wouldn’t. He drove to her house in West Roxbury and told her face to face.
Then Paris and his crew drove over to Kennedy’s house in Hyde Park. Kennedy’s mother, Kathy Crosby, was waiting for them outside and she came right down the path at them.
“Tell me,” she said.
“Let’s go inside,” Paris told her. “Let’s sit down.”
“No,” Kathy Crosby said. “Tell me, now. What are you hiding? Where is Michael?”
The night before, Paris had been with Kennedy at a function for the Burns Foundation, a group of firefighters who help burn victims. Kennedy was very involved in helping burn victims and visited kids at Shriners Hospital in Boston all the time. He was that kind of a guy. It had been a good night and Paris had been joking around with Kennedy, and now, less than 24 hours later, he was about to tell Kennedy’s mother her son was dead.
“Michael saved four people’s lives today,” Paris told her. “But he paid the ultimate price in doing so. He made the ultimate sacrifice.”
And then Paris saw Kathy Crosby’s eyes drain and he felt, weirdly, a burning pain and bursting pride at the same time.
Because as much as it literally hurt his heart to know Eddie Walsh and Mike Kennedy were dead, as he hugged Kennedy’s mom, he could not have been prouder of them, more in awe of them. They ran into a burning building to save lives, knowing they could lose their own. And they did save lives even as they died. And if they had been lucky enough to survive, they would have run into another burning building. And another. And another. And another. Until they were dead or hurt or retired.
Because they are firefighters, Boston firefighters, and that’s what they do.