Allen Curry assumed the burning sensation stinging his nostrils was the shampoo he was using.
It was the end of his shift on Sunday morning, March 15, 1981, and Curry was showering at the Dorchester firehouse near Franklin Field where he had worked for five years, and made history as the first Black firefighter on Engine 52.
Unbeknown to him, two of his white colleagues had poured cleaning acid down the drain of an adjacent shower stall, sending toxic fumes into his stall from a chemical strong enough to remove graffiti from concrete. His family says the chemical wasn’t even supposed to be in the firehouse. He took a gulp of air and held his breath before staggering out.
The fumes caused internal burns and would later trigger post traumatic stress. It would force Curry, then 31, into an early retirement, changing the trajectory of his life.
“As much as I ran away mentally from racism in Boston, I saw . . . you can’t change it,” Curry, now 73, said recently at a Dorchester diner.
Curry has waged a decades-long battle to receive a pension equal to 100 percent of a current day firefighter salary, instead of the disability pension he was granted, about 72 percent of his old salary. (Curry receives about $2,500 in monthly pension allowance, according to the city.) Applied retroactively, the pension boost would mean a $2 million windfall for Curry, according to city calculations.
Now, he’s closer than he’s ever been. The City Council last month passed a home rule petition that would bump Curry’s pension and compensate him for all medical-related expenses connected to the acid incident.
“This was a perfect case of someone who was harmed because he was Black, because he broke barriers,” said Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who sponsored the initiative.
For Curry, what happened in the firehouse showers was an act of brutal racism, something one local politician would later dub “the worst of Boston.” Curry recalls the two white firefighters, identified in court documents as Francis McLaughlin and Thomas Hammond, as framing the incident as a prank gone awry. A court memo in a civil case regarding the incident found McLaughlin and Hammond did not commit assault and battery on Curry nor did they violate his civil rights. The court did, however, find the city to be negligent in the matter.
A message left with Hammond this week was not returned. Speaking to the Globe after this article was initially published online Tuesday, McLaughlin said he had “nothing to do” with the acid incident.
“I didn’t even know that it happened, I was in another room, mopping the floor,” he said.
McLaughlin said he was named in the 1980s civil litigation because of internal BFD politics. He was vocally against a policy that mandated diversification in the department’s hiring practices, and said he was named in the suit as retaliation for that.
McLaughlin did say he felt bad for Curry, whom he called “a nice guy,” and said he got along with him well.
“Allen is not a liar in my opinion, he’s not a liar,” said McLaughlin. “He really believes that this happened on purpose to him.”
McLaughlin rejected any assertion that he would act in a racist manner, saying there are many Black firefighters he served with who would attest to that, and adding that his best friend when he was in the Marine Corps was a Black man from Florida.
McLaughlin also said there are open questions about the incident. For instance, why didn’t other men who were near the shower stalls suffer respiratory injuries?
”I have no idea what happened,” said McLaughlin.
Both Hammond and McLaughlin had lengthy careers at the Boston Fire Department — Hammond retired in 1999 and McLaughlin the following year, according to city authorities. So far this year, Hammond has received more than $33,000 in pension payments from the city and McLaughlin has received more than $45,000.
Meanwhile, Curry’s later years were marred by health problems — a stroke, prostate cancer, and most recently, dementia, a condition that has seemingly not curbed his ability to tell stories about growing up in Roxbury, his younger brother’s basketball exploits, or his time as a firefighter. His recollections are backed up by his relatives.
Curry is a city kid. Born at City Hospital — now Boston Medical Center — he grew up off Warren Street, not far from Nubian Square, known then as Dudley. He graduated from Brighton High School.
His father was a supervisor at a paper recycling company and his mother was a homemaker and seamstress. His grandfather was a preacher at Concord Baptist Church in the South End. In 1969, at the age of 19, Curry was drafted into the Army and served two years, forgoing a college scholarship to Brandeis University.
In Vietnam, he was a tunnel rat because of his small stature, Curry said. He would go into Viet Cong tunnels with a pistol and clear them out if need be. His time in the military left an indelible mark.
Killing people, he said, “was a thing that hurt me.” He has lived with that reality every day since.
Curry would have trouble with sleep for years. His daughter, Allene Curry, recalled he would often fall asleep watching television and only lay in his bed if he was ill, she said.
“He would never talk about it,” she said.
When Curry was new to the Fire Department, a supervisor warned him he would see some gruesome things on the job — things he couldn’t imagine. But compared to war, he said, it was not a concern.
Curry opted for the Fire Department in 1976 over the Police Department because “I’d rather save a life than take a life,” he said.
“I could tell he loved it,” his daughter said. “We would drive through the city, he would say ‘Oh I fought a fire there.’ ”
Speaking in a quiet, raspy voice, Curry vacillated between hailing the brotherhood of firefighting and reflecting on the reality of being Black in a profession dominated by white men in a city roiled by structural racism. He struggled to explain the camaraderie of the firehouse to someone who never experienced it.
“Fighting the fire,” he said, “it’s just something that not every man can do. It’s life or death. You depend on each other.”
But it was still the 1970s in Boston. Court-ordered desegregation of schools meant racial tension was boiling over.
“I was the first Black man” on Engine 52 in Dorchester, Curry said. “And I knew it because I felt it.”
The city continues to grapple with its legacies of segregation and racism, and the Fire Department in particular has struggled to diversify in recent years. It remains majority white and overwhelmingly male. According to a Globe analysis of the city workforce last year, more than 94 percent of the Fire Department’s 1,600 workers were male, and 72 percent were white. The department, which dates back to 1678, has never had a commissioner who is not a white man.
There were times, Curry recalled, when he would shimmy up the pole at the firehouse and listen to conversations his white colleagues were having upstairs. With him out of sight, some of the back-and-forth was blatantly racist, he said.
“Some of the stories — I was glad that I did it, because I knew,” Curry said recently, his voice trailing off.
In years past, there were moments when he wanted to physically harm the men who poured the acid down the drain. Sometimes he would pace in circles, thinking about it. He felt betrayed, but he never acted on those impulses, saying he wasn’t raised that way.
“I went through that thought, and threw it out of my mind,” Curry said.
He lives 20 miles south of his hometown, in Brockton, at what his daughter describes as a rooming house for veterans. She would like to get him into a better facility. He will need 24-7 care at some point, and services that “we can’t rely on the VA for,” she said. The pension increase would help. But it has been a long fight to get it. His predicament was detailed by DigBoston in 2016, and for years, nothing changed.
On multiple occasions, city councilors introduced legislation that would better compensate Curry, including one proposal floated as far back as 1988. In those instances, the matter never advanced.
Additionally, Curry filed litigation during the 1980s over the incident. Many of the court files have been destroyed but a Suffolk Superior Court judgment in 1988 found the city was negligent in the incident, according to city documents. That ruling did not change his pension level, and he was awarded only $10,000.
Curry’s legal cases included a libel suit in the 1980s against the Globe and The Boston Herald American — now the Boston Herald — for reporting that a local doctor alleged Curry was trying to fraudulently obtain a pension in the aftermath of the acid incident. Curry pushed back hard against that assertion, and to this day he maintains it’s false.
More recently, in 2014, he represented himself in a suit in federal court against the Fire Department. The suit was tossed the following year after Curry missed a court deadline.
The council’s recent home rule proposal still has a ways to go. For one, it needs a mayoral sign-off. If it receives that, it still needs approval from the Massachusetts House and Senate, and the governor before it becomes a reality. And it’s not a foregone conclusion, as many home rule petitions die on Beacon Hill.
Arroyo said the system failed Curry after he was stripped of his ability to make a living in his chosen profession. To have a wrong like that corrected, Arroyo said, would be “gratifying and awarding.”
For Curry, it would mean more than money; it would represent a modicum of justice.
“It’s going to change my heart,” he said. “It would mean I finally got what I deserve.”
Jeremiah Manion of Globe staff contributed to this report.