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Deputy chief had to make fateful decision as fire raged

Deputy Fire Chief Joe Finn spoke to reporters after the fatal fire.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Deputy Fire Chief Joe Finn spoke to reporters after the fatal fire.

The moment came several minutes into Wednesday’s raging fire, after the radio transmissions from two trapped Boston firefighters — Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy — went silent.

Boston firefighters had pulled Kennedy’s severely injured body from the basement of 298 Beacon St. But they could not immediately get to Walsh.

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As fiery embers rained and a fierce wind blew, Deputy Chief Joe Finn had to decide whether to risk the men’s lives to save a fallen colleague, or to stand down.

“It was agonizing,’’ said Fire Commissioner John Hasson.

Finn, an unflappable presence under pressure, ordered the evacuation of the building even though Walsh was still not accounted for.

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“Honestly, it’s one of the toughest decisions that a chief has to make,’’ said James Greene, a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department who was not at the scene of the deadly blaze.

Finn was not available for comment on Saturday, but one day after the fire he told the hosts of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio” that his experience and training helped him make the tough call. He said he consulted with another deputy chief who was in charge of the rear of the building. It quickly became clear that the fire could not be easily put out, and that there was no way to save Walsh.

‘Honestly, it’s one of the toughest decisions that a chief has to make.’

James Greene, Boston Fire Department district chief 
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“At that point I made the decision that we are going to get everybody out and we are not going to sacrifice any further firefighters in the operation,’’ Finn said.

Rich Paris, president of Boston Firefighters Local 718, hailed Finn as a 30-year-veteran, a former Marine, and a capable and dedicated fire official.

Boston Fire Department

Fire officials said heavy winds helped fan the flames as the nine-alarm blaze gutted the building on Beacon Street.

“I think Chief Finn did an excellent job,’’ Paris said. “We normally go into the building to save lives. We take an oath to die for strangers.”

Firefighters are trained to rush into burning buildings — not away from them. But sometimes, command leaders are forced to make harrowing calls. Besides the two men who died in Wednesday’s fire, 13 were injured. But officials said there could have been more lives lost.

Deputy Chief Geoffrey Gardell, a 31-year veteran of the Worcester Fire Department, said many factors must be weighed in making the kind of decision Finn did. Faced with an intense fire and unpredictable weather, Gardell said, an incident commander has to consider things like the building’s construction, wind, and fire intensity when deciding to send in more firefighters and put their lives at risk.

Gardell recalled the horrific Dec. 3, 1999, blaze in Worcester, when six firefighters were trapped in a storage warehouse and perished. Back then, District Fire Chief Michael O. McNamee, the commander at the scene, ordered the building evacuated after concluding there was no way he could save the trapped men without losing more lives.

“I know it took a toll on him,’’ said Gardell.

Firefighters from across the country say most departments have training in place for mayday calls on firefighters trapped in a building or otherwise entangled. These departments, including Boston’s, have rapid intervention teams assigned to each fire site that assist trapped firefighters, said Deputy Chief Alex Perricone, of the Baltimore Fire Department.

“We understand that the fire service is inherently dangerous,’’ said Perricone, who heads training and education for his department, which has some 1,500 members who work in densely populated areas similar to Boston. “As long as departments are following their training aspects of the job, then hopefully that will make mayday calls more successful.”

Boston fire officials did not want to speculate on Finn’s actions Wednesday, citing the ongoing investigation.

Department spokesman Steve MacDonald said firefighters are trained to follow protocols and procedures on such things as mayday calls, building evacuations, and trapped victims, although he did not provide specific details on what those policies are.

MacDonald said a Rapid Intervention Team of 10 responders is dispatched to each scene of a one-alarm fire to assist firefighters. A team was sent to assist in Wednesday’s fire, he said.

“The RIT team is standing by, especially trained to show up in front of a building, and is put to work at direction of the chief officer,’’ MacDonald said.

As they came to a ceremony Friday on City Hall Plaza, many firefighters said they were proud of the way Finn and their other colleagues performed.

Paul Miller, another Boston district fire chief, said Finn’s quick thinking and decision-making helped save more lives.

“I was not there, but I can certainly understand his angst,’’ said Miller. “That’s what we get paid to do. Those decisions get made. They may not be popular, but then again you can’t afford to take certain risks.”

Boston Fire Lieutenant Robert Gallagher, who was also not on the scene, said he and others at Engine 50 in Charlestown were gripped by details of the response to the fire that unfolded over their radio communications system.

“When I heard that the chief had ordered everybody out of the building, knowing that we had a couple of members still in there, that was for me an agonizing decision,’’ Gallagher said. “But I know that it was the 100 percent right decision.”

Gallagher said conditions were so bad that “subjecting anyone else to that punishment could result in more loss of lives.”

Finn took the day off Friday, but he’s holding up considering the circumstances, said Hasson, who is also the acting fire chief. “It’s a tough day for him,.”

Other members of the department are also adjusting, trying to cope with the reality of Wednesday’s blaze.

“We have to deal with the emotional impact,’’ said Hasson. “There’s a silence that goes deep in the department. The usual banter and humor are missing. It is going to take a while to get that back.”

Andrew Ryan contributed to this article. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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