CAMBRIDGE — Just four minutes had elapsed since the first 911 call came in, but by the time Deputy Fire Chief Michael Morrissey and the first engine company charged to the scene of Saturday’s sprawling fire, seven buildings and nine cars were already engulfed, and a tower of smoke could be seen in the darkening sky for miles. The source of the fire, a three-decker undergoing a gut renovation, had already collapsed.
“It surprised me how much of a head start it got,” Morrissey said, standing near the scene on Tuesday amid boarded-up buildings and piles of rubble, an acrid tang still lingering in the air after 72 hours.
He described the large “loom up” that billowed into the sky above the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood, as well as the smoke “weeping out of the eaves” of St. Patrick’s Place, a church that had been converted into an affordable-housing community next door to the building where the fire began, on Berkshire Street.
In the first detailed account of how firefighters attacked the 10-alarm fire Morrissey said firefighters were fortunate to find police already on scene evacuating buildings when they arrived Saturday afternoon. Each alarm represents a call for three more engine companies and one more ladder truck, meaning 40 in all were called in to fight the fire directly or provide backup coverage for empty stations.
No one was injured or killed by the fire, which officials deemed the most extensive in Cambridge in recent memory, displacing 122 people from 57 families, according to updated figures provided by a city spokesman Tuesday.
Fire damage or heat damage affected 75 apartments or condo units across 18 residential buildings, ranging from total loss to relatively minor issues that may be fixed in days or weeks. In addition to the building that collapsed, two more have been razed, while others — including the former church, its roof open to the sky, its basement parking garage flooded to the ceiling — are still being evaluated.
As one of four deputy chiefs in Division 1, Morrissey, a 33-year veteran, was the ranking firefighter on duty for the eastern or “downtown” half of Cambridge when the call came in, at 2:53 p.m. Saturday. By 2:57, the heat and flames were already so intense that the first arriving firefighters could not enter the buildings to perform a “classic search,” Morrissey said.
As incident commander, Morrissey arranged the responding companies to surround the fire and push it back from the outside, to contain and then extinguish it.
“The first two engines got their master-stream device into operation as quick as you possibly could, and put a large caliber water stream down the middle of the street, and again that takes energy away from the fire, and it begins the calming process,” he said.
Morrissey said crews from about 16 communities worked together to fight the fire, and all were able to communicate through an “interoperability” agreement on a shared radio channel, making the process smoother.
Though the investigation into the fire’s cause is ongoing, Morrissey reiterated that preliminary findings indicate the blaze was accidental, originating in the three-decker being renovated at 35-37 Berkshire St.
“For it to get that kind of head start just surprised me a little, but conditions were right,” he said. “It was a gut rehab, the building was down to the original bare wood, no windows, and there was enough of a wind to push it along.”
Morrissey said firefighters took pride in containing a fire of this magnitude. After they set up a perimeter, just one additional building caught fire from “flying brands” in the wind; the other 10 affected buildings suffered heat damage but were not hit by flames, he said.
As of Tuesday evening, the Cambridge mayor’s fire relief fund had surpassed $510,000 in donations.