Saying they had suffered unimaginable losses, the families of two Boston firefighters who died battling a nine-alarm blaze in the Back Bay in 2014 on Wednesday called on lawmakers to toughen state fire safety laws to prevent more tragedies.
The families were testifying before a special commission cochaired by state Senator Nick Collins of Boston and state Representative Dan Ryan of Charlestown as it held its second and final public hearing with the objective of creating standardized training for welders and craftsmen, and increasing penalties for violators.
Fire officials have said the March 26, 2014, fire at 298 Beacon St., which killed Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr. and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy, was started by sparks from welders working on an iron handrail in a building next door. Strong winds that day caused the fire to spread rapidly throughout the property.
“Accidents happen. Their deaths were no accident,” said Kathy Malone, Walsh’s sister, in her testimony.
“Our family has suffered unimaginable and immeasurable losses with their tragic deaths.”
In addition to standardizing training for workers engaged in “hot works,” Collins said the commission’s recommendations to the Legislature will focus on turning certain fire codes into statutes, increasing the penalties, and empowering law enforcement to prosecute violators.
The families’ testimony “was very powerful, at times difficult to listen to,” Collins said after the hearing. “We want to do this thing right.”
He said his panel will submit its findings in a Walsh-Kennedy Commission Report, named in honor of the firefighters, to the House and Senate committees on public safety and ways and means by Aug. 15.
Turning the fire codes into statutes should be a simple task and could be done by the end of this calendar year, he said. But creating the language to give prosecutors more tools to prove criminal negligence in a fire, and installing a standardized training system for welders and craftsmen, will probably not be finished until the 2019 legislative session.
“What we have left to do is to identify the fees, the criminal penalties, the standards of training that need to be met if anyone’s going to do hot works work in the city,” Collins said. “A lot of progress has been made, but it’s the task of this commission to make sure it’s on the books regardless of who’s in the governor’s office.”
Along with Malone, Kathy Crosby-Bell, Kennedy’s mother, also urged harsher penalties for workers who don’t follow fire safety regulations. “This is important. This is people’s lives,” she said.
At one point in her testimony, Crosby-Bell asked friends and family members of Walsh and Kennedy to leave the hearing room as she narrated a PowerPoint presentation to the commission detailing the pain and suffering the human body experiences when exposed to fire for several minutes.
“You need to be certain this doesn’t happen again,” she told the panel.
According to the Massachusetts Fire Safety Act of 2004, the maximum penalty for a violation resulting in bodily injury or death is five years in prison or a $25,000 fine. The firefighters’ families want the bar set significantly higher.
“Can you imagine if someone is badly burned and spends their life that way? And their only recovery is only $25,000? No, they need to fix that,” Crosby-Bell said in an interview after the hearing.
In April 2015, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley determined the welders were not criminally responsible for the Back Bay fire. No charges were filed.