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The Boston Globe

Metro

When routine turned to crisis

Searing heat, water loss, blast doomed firefighters’ mission

In the hours before they died, the lives of Edward J. Walsh Jr. and Michael R. Kennedy could not have been any more ordinary. They raced to a false alarm in the Back Bay. They made a supermarket run with two other firefighters to the nearby Shaw’s to pick up chicken breasts and thighs for their next meal. Kennedy lazed on a black couch in the upstairs TV room playing video games on his phone while haranguing a station mate trying to watch a movie.

There was one notable, though perhaps not unusual, element to the day: the relentless wind, which blew so hard that the firetruck heaved as Walsh and firefighter Dennis Keith waited outside the grocery during the shopping trip.

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“If we get a fire today,” Walsh said to Keith, “it’s going to be something else.”

“Eddie,” Keith replied, “don’t mention that F word. We don’t want that crap today.”

At 2:42 p.m., someone dialed 911 and reported smoke in a brick apartment building.

Over the roar of the truck as it raced down Boylston Street, Eric Evans behind the wheel, Keith called out to Kennedy, “Mike, what do you want to do? Do you want to grab the hydrant or the pipe?”

Keith already knew. Kennedy was a go-getter. He liked the tough jobs and to be the first guy in the building. That was Keith’s job that day. He is what is known as the pipe man, who grabs a hose and goes first into the burning building. But Keith was willing to cede to his friend.

“You know what I want to do,” Kennedy replied, grinning. “I want the pipe.”

And so it was decided. When the truck pulled up to 298 Beacon St., they were in a light mood. There was nothing more than a thin haze of smoke drifting from the building. Some people walked casually out. One man carried two suitcases.

“There was nothing out of the ordinary,” Keith said later. “It was just, like, a typical fire.”

Kennedy hauled a heavy, slack hose up the front steps and into the building. Walsh followed immediately behind. They followed a hallway to stairs and descended.

* * *

A firefighter’s assessment came over the radio: “Fire is in the basement.” The voice was inflected with a touch of concern. “The occupants of the fourth floor self-evacuated off the fire escape.’’

Outside, Keith hauled a hose toward a hydrant some 150 feet away. The hose he carried would feed the truck, which in turn fed the firefighters inside. The truck already carried 750 gallons. But that would be gone in less than six minutes without new water coming from the hydrant. Keith had not yet reached the hydrant to open it and attach the hose and start the flow of water when a woman approached him, frantic.

“She said, ‘There is a basement apartment and someone might be in the basement,’” Keith recalled. “My first instinct was to go and see if there was anyone was in there.”

Evans — the pump operator, whose job was to get hoses attached to the fire engine and make sure water flowed to the men inside – told Keith to go and leave the hose and he’d attach it.

“I’ll take care of it,’’ Keith said Evans told him.

Keith grabbed an axe-like crowbar off the truck and ran to the building. He forced his way through two garden-level doors into a basement apartment.

“I went inside and it was like daylight,’’ Keith said. “There was nothing showing smoke. There was nothing there to say that it was going to be what it turned out to be.”

He continued to look. One room was clear, and another. Then he hit a closed door hot to the touch. There was so much heat, Keith said, and his training told him to leave it shut. Opening a door can release a fireball.

Keith retreated, heading outside to get a hose and alert commanders outside. He was back in less than a minute, he said. By then, everything had changed.

* * *

Recordings of radio traffic describe what happened next. A muffled, forceful voice, presumably Walsh or Kennedy, called from the basement. “Fire alarm!” the voice shouted, calling the dispatch center by its nickname and begging for water in his hose. “Charge the line! Charge the line!”

The female dispatcher’s voice was steady. “Engine 33 hydrant,” she said, “charge the line.”

Another man’s voice burst through the chatter.

“Everyone out of the first floor!” he yelled on the dispatch recording. “Everyone out of the first floor!”

“Charge the line!” a voice yelled. “Engine 33 charge it!”

Then, came the call that would change the day: “Mayday Engine 33,” a man yelled. “Mayday, Engine 33. Engine 33 mayday.”

The female dispatcher echoed the call, her voice still even, carrying a steely resolve.

“Engine 33 has a mayday,” she said. “In the basement.”

* * *

Engine 22 wailed down Dartmouth Street and turned left onto Beacon. Quentin Lee, the engine’s 49-year-old captain, had heard of the mayday call over the radio and now saw the chaotic scene. It had been just minutes since the initial call. A second company had arrived. There was running and shouting, clips of frantic chatter over the radio.

Before his truck even stopped, an order came from a command leader at the scene: Get “a big line” – a two-and a half inch hose capable of delivering 250 gallons of water per minute — to the basement as soon as possible.

Lee and others from his crew piled off the truck, hurriedly donned gear and oxygen masks and hauled the hose toward a door to the basement at the street, calling back to the engine to charge the line with water.

When they reached the building, Lee felt raging heat radiating from the doorway. The crew eased open the door and entered into viscous, tarry smoke. It was so black they could see nothing, not each other, not even fire. And the heat. “I haven’t in my career, that I can remember, had that much heat on me,” Lee said.

He ordered his men out and to try another attack, up the stairs of the front stoop to the first floor and down to the basement by way of the stairs inside.

* * *

“I want all members out of the building,” a man said on the dispatch recording. “I want all members out of the building immediately.”

Somewhere in the basement, Walsh and Kennedy struggled.

“33 is trapped in the basement,” a man said. “We’re at the front of the building. We’ve got to get the water running.”

The call went for a third alarm.

“Charge the line!” a man yelled. “Charge 33’s line now!”

The hoses had all been properly connected, Keith said. A firehose now carried water from the hydrant to the truck. Other companies had attached hoses to Engine 33 and were pumping water. It seemed water was flowing on the line running to Walsh and Kennedy in the basement.

A fourth alarm was struck.

“It’s getting hot down here,” a man yelled on the radio, according to the audio recordings. “Engine 33, I’m running out of water. I’m running out of water.”

The female dispatcher held steady and sounded reassuring.

“OK 33,” she said. “We’re going to get you some water.”

The female dispatcher repeated the message.

“They say they don’t have any water and it’s getting hot in there,” she said. “They are in the basement heading toward the front of the building.”

The last word from inside the building on the dispatched recorded was muffled and pleading.

“We’re in the basement,” a man said. “Come and get us.”

“Engine 33,” the female dispatcher said. “They’re coming.”

She echoed the plea across the radio. “Engine 33 wants to know if you’re coming to get them,” she said.

A man responded. “We’ve got companies coming in the front of the basement right now,” he said.

* * *

Lee, his crew on Engine 22, and other firefighters moved into the first floor, carrying the big hose. They aimed for the stairs straight ahead of them leading to the basement. Some 20 feet inside, Lee and another firefighter had little oxygen left and had to retreat to change. When they went back in and advanced again toward the stairs to the basement, Lee paused. He could feel the temperature soaring. “I’m ordering guys to back up because the temperature in the building — I can feel it rising and rising and rising,” Lee said.

They slowly backed out toward the building’s threshold, and then it blew. A concussion like a bomb, heat and flame exploding through the floor. Lee and his men were blown off their feet, “legs tangled, feet tangled,” he said.

* * *

“Are you there Engine 33?’’ the female dispatcher asked.

No one answered.

By now, scores of firefighters had arrived and hooked up hoses to the Engine 33. They were yelling and telling Evans, the pump operator, to send more water. Evans did give more water, Keith said, but he speculated later that the fire had burned the hose lugged in by Walsh and Kennedy.

“They were there asking for water,” Keith said. “But they were down there with a line that was already burned off.”

Sometime after 3 p.m., firefighters pulled Kennedy’s body from the back of the building. They wheeled him on a stretcher, frantically searching for an ambulance that had been forced to park more than 200 feet down Beacon Street to avoid being blocked in by the fire engines.

At least two firefighters tried to run inside the building to find Walsh, but they were forced back by their colleagues, who wrapped them in bear hugs to restrain them.

On the dispatch recording, a man said, “Companies are going back in.”

“Negative,” another man responded on the radio. “No companies are going in anywhere. Stay out away from the building.”

The wind-fueled fire was so intense that hot spots flared after being drenched by hoses. The building creaked, raising the specter the floor beams might give way.

Officials fretted about when it would be safe enough to send a team of rescuers inside. One deputy chief paced back and forth, clearly frustrated. Some firefighters had burns on their faces and necks. Others were standing in a deep puddle of water, the frigid wind biting their faces.

“You’ve got dozens of guys just all standing shoulder to shoulder, looking at the building, almost in disbelief that they lost two guys,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

At about 7 p.m., they went back to recover Walsh’s body. A chaplain went with them. Firefighters formed two lines on either side of a stretcher outside the building as rescuers brought him out and gently laid him on it. The firefighters escorted the stretcher from the back of the building to Storrow Drive, which had been closed, and hoisted his body over a six-foot fence. Finally, his body was placed him in an ambulance.

Exhausted, Keith made it home about 11 p.m. He hugged his 2-year-old grandson. He hugged his wife. Keith recalled the moment just hours before when he had allowed Kennedy to take his post as the first man into the building. He was supposed to be in that building.

“Why me?’’ Keith thought. “Why wasn’t I in that body bag?”

Maria Cramer, Eric Moskowitz, and Laura Crimaldi of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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