Devastating 1964 Dorchester fire recalled
It was an “oppressively hot” and windy Friday afternoon when Boston fire alarm operator Frank Leahan got a call from a woman reporting a fire at a three-decker on Bellflower Street in Dorchester.
Before Mrs. Salvatore Sabella could give her name or any details, city records say, she screamed, “I’ve got to get out of here!”
Over the next eight hours, the Bellflower Street Conflagration of May 22, 1964, wiped out an entire neighborhood, igniting more than 250 rooftop fires, destroying or damaging 35 multifamily houses, injuring more than 31 firefighters and more than 200 people, and leaving 300 people homeless.
Miraculously, no one died.
“It was astonishing how those buildings burned, and what’s more astonishing is that no one got killed,” said John McColgan, the city’s archivist.
The 68-year-old McColgan was running an errand in Uphams Corner when he saw a “monstrous plume of smoke” with orange flames shooting from the rooftops about a mile away near Edward Everett Square.
When he got to Bellflower Street, McColgan recalled, fire was consuming a three-decker before his eyes.
“The entire backside of the house was in a sheet of flames,” McColgan said in a telephone interview. “It went up in no time.”
No rain had fallen in the city since April 26, and the temperature was 76 degrees when the fire started on a rear porch at 26 Bellflower St. at 1:38 p.m., city records show.
It spread to Dorset and Howell streets near the South Boston line, according to a report written by Assistant Fire Chief John E. Clougherty.
“We had to stop it. Thank God we did,” a fire official told The Boston Globe 50 years ago on Thursday. “If we didn’t cut off the radiated heat, we’d have lost all of South Boston.”
Garbage collectors picking up trash on the street saw how quickly the fire was moving and went into the three-decker to help residents escape, dropping one tenant from a second-floor porch and into the arms of their colleagues below.
Pat Morris, who said she moved from Bellflower Street three months before the fire, remembered a baby being tossed to safety.
“There were six children in the family,’’ said the 82-year-old Morris. “They all got out, but they had to throw the baby down.”
Residents tried to rescue what they could before fire consumed their homes, carting furniture and clothing into the street.
“There was a lot of wind, and I believe when the Fire Department got there, there were three buildings involved already,” said Bill Noonan, a retired Boston firefighter and a member of the Boston Fire Historical Society.
“Those three-deckers were in very good condition,” Noonan said. “They weren’t falling down. The fire just spread very, very fast.”
There was a fluctuating west-by-southwesterly wind that never fell below 17 miles per hour and gusted at speeds of up to 31 miles per hour, Clougherty’s report said.
The blaze was so intense that Fire Lieutenant James D. Kennedy ordered a second alarm before he arrived at the scene, calling in the command while crossing the Southampton Street Bridge with Ladder Company 20, according to the Boston Fire Historical Society.
One photograph from the fire shows a man using a garden hose to wet down a house as flames engulfed the rear of a home in the background.
Video footage shows civilians grabbing water hoses to help fight the fire.
Five firefighters were hospitalized in serious condition, the Globe reported.
Several firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation, eye injuries, cuts, and burns, said the Boston Fire Historical Society.
“There was just such a sense of powerlessness,” said Joan Rooney, who lived near the blaze.
As the fire was burning, Rooney, then 16, said her family welcomed evacuees, firefighters, and reporters into their Dorchester Avenue home, which was not threatened by the flames.
A family that evacuated from across the street salvaged at least two prom dresses, which Rooney’s mother hung in the living room, she said.
“I remember feeling afraid for our friends across the street and afraid that the wind would change and the flames would come in our direction,” Rooney said.
At 1:46 p.m., the fire went to five alarms, the highest number of alarms that were called at the time.
Firefighters then made additional calls for extra help, summoning assistance from fire departments from about 40 surrounding communities, said Paul Christian, the city’s former fire commissioner.
Retired fire lieutenant Mike Foley, who was 17 at the time, remembered feeling intense heat on Bellflower Street.
“I turned around, and the fire had jumped the street,” said Foley. “That’s what the blast of heat was. It was just unbelievable.”
Investigators believe the fire started in an overstuffed chair sitting on a rear porch at 26 Bellflower St., but what sparked the blaze remains unknown, Christian said. Firefighters eventually stopped the fire by using a “flanking strategy,” combatting the blaze from its perimeters, he said.
“That fire would have gone on forever,” said Brenda Norton, who lives on Boston Street. “It was shocking, really. Then all of a sudden there was nothing. I mean this empty rubble, ashes.”
In 1981, a 113-unit apartment building was constructed on the site, according to the city.
The building, now run by the Boston Housing Authority, offers apartments to low- and moderate-income residents who are elderly or disabled.
A picture of firefighters spraying water on three-
deckers during the fire is displayed in the building’s community room.
Morris, who lives in the building, said she had moved out of her first-floor apartment on Bellflower Street three months before the 1964 fire because of a blaze in her living room. That fire prompted one of her neighbors to buy fire insurance, she said.
Another neighbor, Marilyn Smith, lost her wedding gown in the fire, Morris said.
“It was horrible,” Morris said. “It was unbelievable. It was very scary.”
If a fire ever got started and went unnoticed for a while in one of Boston’s neighborhoods crowded with three-deckers, Christian said, the conflagration could be repeated.
“It could very well happen again,” he said. “The potential is there every day.”