BEVERLY — Karl Gadbois was walking home when he saw the Elliott Chambers rooming house ablaze. From across the street, he watched firefighters struggle to extinguish the inferno and rescue the building’s dwellers, amid bright lights and blaring sirens in the early morning darkness three decades back.
He saw people, including acquaintances and relatives of friends, jumping from the upper floors of the three-story wooden building. Many grabbed on to power lines to break their fall on the pavement. One man died after leaping from the third floor. In all, 15 would perish.
Sylvia Liberti was asleep in her bedroom two blocks away when she was awakened by the shrill fire alarms. She saw the fire on her way to work that morning as they were “bringing out the bodies.” She did not stop to look because she did not want to see any more.
Thirty years after the Elliott Chambers fire, some Beverly residents, such as Gadbois, now 60, and 80-year-old Liberti, remember in sharp detail that morning of July 4, 1984.
Officials would later say that the 35-room building was “built to burn.” The blaze spurred state legislation requiring sprinklers in boarding and lodging houses.
“It was a very tragic fire in the annals of the history of the Commonwealth,” said State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan, who, at the time, was director of the state fire academy. “It dictated discussion of what could be done to prevent similar tragedies.”
The fire’s 18 survivors have either left the city or died, said John J. Burke, president of a memorial foundation dedicated to the victims. Burke was 5 at the time of the tragedy, but he remembers when his aunt took him the next day to the charred remains of the rooming house.
“Seeing something like that, it does leave an impact on you,” he said.
When residents found out that a CVS pharmacy would be built on the site of the old rooming house, Burke, then a city councilor, and others lobbied the city to allow erection of a memorial to those who died. A bronze plaque on a granite stone lists names and ages of victims, on the corner of Elliott and Rantoul streets in front of the new store’s parking lot.
At the memorial’s unveiling in 2010, about 100 people gathered. There was an honor guard from the Beverly Fire Department and a performance from a local musician. Relatives spoke about the loved ones they lost.
Burke is working with James Maroney, another Beverly resident, to make a documentary about the fire. He said they are unsure when it will be released, but much of it has already been filmed and produced.
In 1989, James Carver, a taxi driver and part-time pizza maker from Danvers, was convicted of setting the fire. Today, he is serving back-to-back life sentences for arson and second-
Authorities say Carver acted in a fit of jealousy after he learned a tenant was dating a former girlfriend of his. A jury found that he took a match to a stack of gasoline-soaked newspapers in the front doorway of the rooming house, the only exit available to the building’s 33 residents.
Carver continued to insist he was innocent and appealed the decision as recently as 2009. His lawyer pointed to another resident of the rooming house, saying that man had a propensity for starting fires.
Gadbois, who said he met Carver while both were incarcerated at the former Essex County Jail in Salem, said he had doubts about Carver’s guilt.
“I don’t think he did it,” he said. “I heard conflicting stories.”
Steve O’Connell, a spokesman for Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, said the prosecutor’s office remains convinced Carver was responsible for the fire.
“He had a trial by a jury of his peers and was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” O’Connell said.
Those who lived at Elliott Chambers tended to be poor men in difficult circumstances, according to witnesses and news reports at the time. There were drug addicts, drifters, and former mental hospital patients, although children and women also lived there. A boy and a woman, found in the manager’s room, were among the victims.
Massachusetts legislators quickly passed a law that allowed municipalities to choose to require sprinklers in boarding and lodging houses. More than 130 cities and towns now mandate sprinklers in boarding houses, said Coan, the fire marshal.
Deaths in rooming house fire have declined dramatically since the law went into effect, from nine in 1985 to an average of fewer than one a year since the mid-1990s, according to data from the state’s Department of Fire Services.
Coan helped craft similar legislation, currently under review on Beacon Hill, that would expand residential use of sprinklers. He said 23 people in one- and two-family homes in Massachusetts died in fires last year, and such deaths might be prevented if sprinklers and other fire-control technology were present.
The Elliott Chambers fire — along with the Cocoanut Grove nightclub blaze in 1942 that killed 492 people in Boston — continues to serve as a reference point for public safety discussions in Massachusetts, he said.
“The vast majority [of people] die in the safety of their own home,” Coan said. “We need to save people from dying where they should feel safest.”