Fred Sullivan stood in complete darkness on the fourth floor of the Hotel Vendome, a rookie Boston firefighter waiting for orders as the remnants of a four-alarm fire were being extinguished at the once-elegant building on Commonwealth Avenue and Dartmouth Street.
It was the afternoon of June 17, 1972, and Sullivan could hear his experienced colleagues about 25 yards away, talking among themselves, some leaning against a wall. Suddenly, the floor under them collapsed, and they plummeted amid a crush of falling debris.
“They had the fire knocked down,” recalled Sullivan, who retired in 2009 as a district fire chief. “They had only a little bit of work to do.”
The nine firefighters who died at the Hotel Vendome a half-century ago Friday remain the largest loss of life in the history of the Boston Fire Department. For the families of the deceased, for former firefighters who knew the fallen, and for new recruits who are shown the site, their sacrifice endures.
“I think of those guys, I see their faces, and it doesn’t seem like 50 years,” said Paul Christian, the former fire commissioner who was four years into his career when the Vendome caught fire. “Those days are just so fresh in my mind, and those memories will never dim. Those guys are forever young.”
Family members, firefighters, and others will gather at 11 a.m. Friday at a monument on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall that commemorates those who died nearby. Sullivan will read the names of the deceased, and Carol Jameson, one of two living widows, will think again of her late husband, John, and the job that he loved.
“Most people go to work every day because they have to make a living. These men went to work because they wanted to,” said Jameson, 86. “They were like a band of brothers.”
Although the cause of the fire was never determined, the collapse has been linked to a renovation project that followed the hotel’s sale in 1971. The Parisian-style hotel, built in 1872 and expanded in later years, had ranked among Boston’s finest before losing its luster in the decades after World War II.
A rebirth of the building was planned through luxury apartments and shops, as well as a restaurant that had recently opened as the Cafe Vendome. Holes were opened in the basement walls for heating and air-conditioning ducts, but one was cut into a load-bearing wall directly beneath a column.
A Board of Inquiry assembled after the fire concluded that “the loss of support at the base of the circular cast-iron column was sufficient to trigger the collapse of the entire building starting at the second floor and proceeding upward.”
In retrospect, Christian said, “this was an event we thought would have happened sooner or later because of the structural deficiencies.”
Sullivan, the retired district fire chief, said that the work lacked proper oversight. “For three months, there was no one inspecting the work that was going on,” he said.
The project’s architect and structural engineer were let go in August 1971. The holes were opened for the ducts sometime afterward, but the work had not been reviewed by the city’s building department, according to the Boston Fire Historical Society.
“It is apparent that the cutting of the opening ... directly below the base of the column weakened the wall to an extent that any additional weight put on the upper floors, such as firefighters and their equipment moving about, was enough to initiate the collapse,” the Board of Inquiry said.
A civil settlement was reached with the families, but no criminal charges were brought, Christian said.
“We weren’t happy,” he added.
Shaking his head, Sullivan described the investigations of the fire and its bureaucratic aftermath as “business as usual.”
For Jameson, the news of her husband’s death was delivered by Monsignor James Keating, the Fire Department chaplain who called at their home in West Roxbury. Jameson had been sitting on the porch with her mother, and the announcement left her in stunned disbelief.
“I don’t know if I had a reaction. I didn’t know if it was real,” Jameson recalled at her residence in Milton. “Your mind and your body don’t react simultaneously sometimes. I was thinking, ‘This didn’t happen. This didn’t happen.’ ”
Only the night before, the Jamesons had been at a party with other firefighters, and John had left in a great mood. The next day was a Saturday when John had agreed to work for another firefighter. Although Carol did not immediately hear about the blaze, its smoke could be seen by fans at nearby Fenway Park.
“I had been out shopping for Father’s Day” that weekend, she said. “And I wasn’t one to have the radio on in the car.”
Fifty years later, Jameson said she is not bitter.
“I knew it was something he wanted to do. He was committed to the Fire Department,” Jameson said. “Like somebody who lost a husband in the service, your life goes on but you never forget. It’s there during the good times and the bad.”
The images of the dead also remain with Christian, who was off-duty that day but drove to the Vendome to watch the firefighters battle the flames. He left just before the collapse, which occurred about three hours after the first fire box was pulled.
“When you go into the department, you understand there are risks,” Christian said. “But somehow you feel it won’t happen to you or guys close to you.”
Aa a rookie, Sullivan said, the tragedy was a terrible lesson on the dangers of the job, but also about the reflexive bravery the work demands.
“It was in God’s hands, and it wasn’t my time,” Sullivan said. “I knew, too, that if that time comes, there won’t be any bargaining or pleading. That’s what the job was.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.