When Boston firefighters pulled up to a vacant toy factory that had caught fire in the South End, flames were threatening to consume the building.
It was 12:31 a.m. on Oct. 1, 1964, and firefighters preparing to combat the blaze on Trumbull Street were “riveted to the glow of fire in the sky,” according to a report by Boston Fire Chief William A. Terrenzi.
Within a half hour, the fire morphed into a devastating tragedy that took the lives of five firefighters and a civilian. Without warning part of an exterior front wall collapsed into a pile of bricks and debris.
“It was a roar; it happened so fast,” said Paul Callaghan, 86, a retired Boston deputy chief who was standing at the base of a ladder when the wall gave way, trapping the firefighters.
A Mass is set for Sunday at St. Francis de Sales Church in Charlestown to mark the fire’s 50th anniversary.
“When the wall collapsed, everything changed for everybody,” said Oddie Johnson, 79, who worked at a nearby variety store and is credited with reporting the fire to authorities.
Fire Lieutenants John J. Geswell, 40, and John J. McCorkle, 53, along with Firefighters Robert J. Clougherty, 31, Francis L. Murphy, 42, and James B. Sheedy, 38, were killed.
The civilian casualty was Andrew Sheehan, 25, a freelance photographer and “spark” from Milton who drove to the blaze with firefighters stationed on Harrison Avenue, said former Boston fire commissioner Paul A. Christian.
The tragedy left 11 children without fathers and injured 12 firefighters.
The Rev. Daniel J. Mahoney, a Boston Fire Department chaplain, recalled comforting the families at Boston City Hospital.
“It was shock and, ‘This can’t be happening,’ but it did,” Mahoney said.
On Oct. 5, 1964, the fallen firefighters were honored at a joint funeral at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
Cardinal Richard J. Cushing celebrated the Mass as five caskets sat at the front of the church.
“It was a sight that never had been seen before,” Mahoney said. “That was the first time that five of them were buried together in Boston.”
After the collapse, Callaghan, the retired deputy chief, recalled seeing Clougherty’s father approach the narrow, cobblestone alleyway where his son was trapped. John E. Clougherty was an assistant chief and took command of the scene after the disaster, Terrenzi wrote.
“My heart was in my mouth,” Callaghan said. “I could see the chief of the department coming around the corner, and I knew his boy was buried under the pile.”
Hours after the blaze, the older Clougherty told the Globe that he was at the disaster site for 30 minutes before learning of his son’s fate.
“I did not go to the hospital when they told me,” he said. “I was in charge.”
The younger Clougherty’s partner, Tom Goodwin, said he was among the firefighters who survived.
“All I remember is the building coming down,” said Goodwin, now 85. “Next, they were hauling me away. I try to not remember it. I lost Bob Clougherty.”
The dead included men who belonged to families with long histories with the Boston Fire Department. Geswell was the uncle of Martin E. Pierce Jr., a former Boston fire commissioner. He was on one of the ladders when the wall collapsed, Terrenzi wrote.
Pierce’s father, who was president of the union, Boston Firefighters Local 718, left his home in the middle of the night, his son said. Shortly after he left, a fire alarm operator called the family house in Charlestown, but did not disclose the fatalities, the younger Pierce said.
An hour later, Pierce said his father returned and broke the news to his mother and grandfather. “It was painful at that time,” Pierce said. “They were in the prime of their lives.”
Geswell had been promoted to lieutenant less than three months before the fire, according to newspaper accounts and a union publication.
McCorkle was back on the job that night for the first time since returning from a vacation to Miami, where he had celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary with his wife, Mary.
Sheedy had been injured a little more than four months before his death while battling the Bellflower Street Conflagration, which wiped out an entire neighborhood in Dorchester on May 22, 1964. He spent a month at Boston City Hospital recovering from smoke inhalation before returning to work, a Globe report said.
The Globe reported that Murphy had been hurt in that fire, which miraculously took no lives.
When it was time to plan the funeral, the families decided that a joint tribute was fitting, said Mahoney, who recalled the words of one relative: “They were together in life, so they should be together at their funeral.”
The sad scene of multiple caskets together was repeated in 1972 when nine firefighters were killed at the Hotel Vendome fire in the Back Bay, after a section of the burning building collapsed. “It was only eight years later that we went through the same thing with nine of them,” Mahoney said.
Investigators questioned two boys, ages 11 and 14, about the Trumbull Street fire, Terrenzi’s report said.
The boys told investigators they went to great lengths to get inside the building on Sept. 30, scaling two fences, climbing atop a roof shed, and then reaching the top of a common area that joined the factory to a neighboring structure, Terrenzi wrote.
That is where they climbed into the building through a window and began exploring the premises, which contained trash, model planes, and fuel for the planes made of castor oil and alcohol, Terrenzi wrote.
The younger boy said the older boy was in the habit of carrying and lighting matches, Terrenzi wrote. The older boy denied lighting a match in the building, the report said. Terrenzi wrote that the boys were adjudged delinquent by a judge, but the report does not specify whether they were charged with setting the fire.
Retired firefighter Bill Noonan has compiled accounts of the tragedy, including one that said the boys were not charged.
Still, they were believed to be responsible, Christian said.
“It was pretty well determined that they were the cause of the fire,” he said. Trumbull Street no longer exists today.
Goodwin, Clougherty’s friend who survived the fire, said firefighters cannot stop collapses like the one that killed his comrades. “It’s one of those things that happens in a split second,” he said. “Once the buildings come down, you can’t do a thing to stop them.”