Collection of Bill Noonan
Six firefighters died 120 years ago this week in a relentless blaze at a mattress factory in the West End. There is no memorial to the men, but the tragedy is still remembered by Boston firefighters.
The fire started on the fourth floor of George W. Bent & Co. on Merrimac Street on Feb. 5, 1898, according to a Boston Globe article the next day. Ten firefighters were inside the building battling the fire when the roof suddenly collapsed on them, causing them to fall from the fourth floor to the basement, where they were buried under feathers and other cushioning materials.
Four escaped with burns and other injuries, but the others died. Four of them were found dead in the basement – Patrick Disken, John Mulhern, George Gottwald, and William Welch. District Fire Chief John Egan was pulled from the wreckage and died en route to the hospital, and Captain James Victory died at Massachusetts General Hospital shortly after the fire.
The Globe described the event as a “catastrophe.”
“Their sufferings can only be imagined. When their bodies were taken out they were fair, showing that they had not been crushed or burned, but their features showed the stamp of agony,” the Globe reported.
The Globe started a charitable fund for the widows and children of the deceased firefighters, raising more than $4,300 in just a day following the fire. Today, that amount would be the equivalent of over $100,000.
Bill Noonan, a retired Boston firefighter, now dedicates hours to pouring over library archives in an attempt to document the department’s history for the Boston Fire Historical Society. He says more people should reflect on and remember the event and the men who perished.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘hero,’” Noonan said. “I think it’s overused. They were basically doing their jobs and they got caught in an unfortunate incident.”
The factory was the site of three previous fires in the two decades before. Repairs after those fires left the building with improper support beams that failed in the 1898 fire, the Globe reported.
“It must have been terrible,” Noonan said. “If you’re killed outright, it’s one thing, but if you’re trapped and you can’t get out – it must be like quicksand.”
An event like the Merrimac Street fire isn’t as likely to happen today, due to the availability of heavy machinery like cranes, Noonan said. He also noted improvements in the city building department’s ability to monitor renovations and ensure safety.
Noonan said the historical society has tried to work with the city to create memorials for firemen who have died in the line of duty, but nothing has come to fruition yet.
“Most people don’t seem to care or pay attention to it, but I think it should be remembered every year,” he said. “It was 120 years ago, but all those guys were married and had children.”
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