The most heartbreaking tragedy in Boston Fire Department history struck without warning on a Saturday afternoon in the Back Bay. Fire broke out in the former Hotel Vendome at 2:35 p.m. on June 17, 1972, during renovations to convert the century-old luxury hotel to condominiums. Box 1571 rang first, with three more to follow. The fire was under control within two hours, but then the unexpected happened. An entire five-story section of the building collapsed, trapping 17 firefighters and killing nine of them.
Forty years later the memory of that day remains sadly vivid for many. Former Boston Globe staff photographer George Rizer, who arrived on scene shortly after the collapse, described the scene: “I was only part time, in my second year in the business. I was 26. Most of the staffers weren’t working that evening because of the Boston Press Photographers Association annual awards ball. I remember standing on a mailbox on the corner of Newbury Street and Dartmouth Street making most of the pictures. I didn’t move much for the next few hours. The firefighters I photographed being rescued had been on the top floors and rode the collapse down. I don’t remember sirens or a lot of shouting. It was quiet. It was dig with your hands, dig with your tools. And they were always working under duress. They didn’t know what else might collapse. My date for the night for the ball was sitting out in front of the Globe in a white dress waiting for me for five hours.”