Chief says Back Bay fire tragedy led to soul-searching, more training

Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn briefly became emotional as he addressed the media regarding federal findings on the fatal Back Bay fire that took the lives of two firefighters.
Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn briefly became emotional as he addressed the media regarding federal findings on the fatal Back Bay fire that took the lives of two firefighters. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The ferocious fire that killed two Boston firefighters in March 2014 was a “perfect storm for tragedy,” an emotional Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph E. Finn said Thursday in response to a federal report that cited inadequate training and staffing as factors in the men’s deaths.

The report also found that Boston firefighters failed to adequately assess the risks at the scene, as heat billowed and wind-driven fire engulfed the building and trapped Lieutenant Edward Walsh and firefighter Michael Kennedy in the basement.

Finn, the commander at the scene, said the Back Bay fire was a wake-up call for the department and has prompted a renewed focus on “back-to-basics” training, particularly in intense urban fires.


“We’ve done more training in the last 18 months than in the last 10 years prior,” Finn said at a news conference from the department’s headquarters.

In its report, officially released Thursday, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health identified a wide range of factors that led to the fire and its fatalities, including uncontrolled ventilation and a lack of nearby fire hydrants.

In an internal analysis released Thursday, the Boston Fire Department reached many of the same conclusions about the fire, which was caused by unpermitted and improperly performed welding behind the Beacon Street building.

These reports made us look introspectively,” Finn said. “We can now begin the healing process and start moving forward.”

Finn said he met with Walsh’s and Kennedy’s relatives and colleagues before the reports were released and began the news conference by reading statements on their families’ behalf.

“While Ed would tell you he was just doing his job, to our family he will always be a hero,” wrote his wife, Kristin. “We owe it to Ed, Michael Kennedy, and all the firefighters on scene that day to make sure the city never has to face a tragic fire like this again.”


Kathy Crosby Bell, the mother of Kennedy, called for greater funding to adopt the federal recommendations.

“The ongoing lack of funding across the country for the fire service must be remedied in order to enable many of the [federal] suggestions,” Crosby Bell wrote. “It is my hope that these findings can help ensure that something like this never happens again.”

Among a host of recommendations, federal investigators urged the department to develop training and tactics for wind-driven fires and ensure adequate staffing for deploying firefighters in tightly populated areas.

At times wiping away tears, Finn recalled Walsh as one of the most qualified, impressive recruits he ever met and said Kennedy’s reputation as a firefighter was impeccable. But the cruel circumstances of the fire, including several random occurrences, quickly overwhelmed them, he said.

Winds as strong as 60 miles per hour, an open basement door, flammable materials stored in a cabinet, and an unused utility duct fueled the fire’s rapid spread.

At the same time, staffing issues meant the main water hose “could not be stretched to the hydrant” and teams of firefighters had to be split up, federal investigators found.

The department has been unable to increase staffing significantly, but Finn and union officials said they have had preliminary discussions with Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh about additional hiring.

The reports also found that security grates may have prevented the two firefighters from escaping the rear apartment, and a burned fire hose left them without enough water.


Finn said he did not fault Walsh and Kennedy for entering the apartment after receiving reports that civilians were trapped inside.

“It was the right decision,” Finn stated. “They had no knowledge of how long the fire was burning ... or what would happen.”

Within minutes, an explosion rocked the building after an open door allowed a flow of oxygen to feed the fire.

“People were literally blown off their feet,” Finn said.

Finn blamed the administration of former mayor Thomas Menino and past fire officials for neglecting the department. As a result, training regimens fell below national standards and staffing levels lagged, he said.

Richard Paris, president of Boston Fire Fighters Local 718, also faulted Menino’s administration and former fire commissioner Roderick J. Fraser Jr.

“The last administration did not care about the Boston Fire Department,” Paris said. “We went to the last mayor and talked about staffing and training, and nothing was ever done.”

Fraser, who resigned just weeks before the Back Bay fire, could not be reached for comment. On Thursday, Finn acknowledged that the department was in transition at the time.

Paris praised Walsh and Finn for being responsive to the union’s concerns about staffing and implementing new training methods.

“You’re only as good as your practice,” Paris said.

Finn said Boston firefighters face unique challenges because of the city’s old buildings and narrow streets. The city was “built to burn,” he said.

Finn said that firefighters saved six residents from the fire and that the two reports vindicate his decision to have firefighters evacuate the building when they did.


“They would have been in that basement when that [blast] took place,” Finn said. “We would have had more dead firefighters.”

Meghan E. Irons and Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH