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Heavy flames knocked down in 9-alarm East Boston fire

Massive flames sprung from the New England Casket Co. building on Friday evening.
Massive flames sprung from the New England Casket Co. building on Friday evening.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

The New England Casket Co., founded decades ago by an Italian cabinet maker in East Boston, was destroyed in a massive fire Friday afternoon that sent thick plumes of smoke laced with chemicals into the air and forced the evacuation of parts of the Orient Heights neighborhood.

The nine-alarm fire drew about 200 firefighters from Boston, Chelsea, Winthrop, and other communities to battle the fire, which broke out just after 3 p.m. at the large industrial building on Bennington Street.

The fire raged for hours and caused “millions and millions” worth of damages, Fire Commissioner Joe Finn said.

By 10:30 p.m., the heavy fire was out, but crews were chasing hot spots, the department said on Twitter. About 100 to 150 homes were evacuated, and shortly before 11 p.m., residents were allowed to return home, according to the mayor’s office.

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Chemicals from stains and varnishes used to coat the caskets burned. Concern over the heavy smoke and air quality prompted the evacuation of several streets in Orient Heights.

“We got a pretty good handle on what the chemicals were,” said Finn shortly after 11:15 p.m.

Authorities monitored the air quality of the neighborhood with meters, “and they’re well within the acceptable range,” Finn said.

Still, the area of Orient Heights nearest the fire was evacuated “out of an abundance of caution.”

He said five people were injured — two Boston police officers suffered smoke inhalation, two Boston firefighters were treated for exhaustion, and one Chelsea firefighter suffered a leg injury.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said the fire was one of the largest he has seen during his time in office.

Fire crews took to the Blue Line tracks to pour water on the building.
Fire crews took to the Blue Line tracks to pour water on the building.(Boston Fire Department)

“We just want to make sure people are safe,” Walsh said at the news briefing.

Governor Charlie Baker said on Twitter that he is “grateful for the incredible bravery and hard work of our first responders battling the fire in East Boston.”

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Finn ordered an eighth alarm shortly before 5:30 p.m. as firefighters dealt with a water supply issue. About 45 minutes later, Finn struck a ninth alarm.

Dozens of fire trucks lined Bennington Street, and firefighters fought the fire from multiple angles. But their efforts were hampered by an apparent water-pressure problem.

At one point, firefighters were ordered out of the building, out of concern for their safety.

Walsh attributed the pressure problem to the building’s location in a low-lying area. Pressure is greatest on Orient Heights, a residential neighborhood at the top of a hill.

But the casket company is located “at the end of the line,” Walsh said. “We’re down in the lowlands here. That’s where the pressure has a problem.”

Finn said the fire department worked with Boston Water and Sewer Commission and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to alleviate the problem and increase the water pressure in the area.

“We’re in pretty good shape with the water,” said Finn shortly after 11:15 p.m.

The cause of the fire was not known Friday night. It appeared to start in the roof area, above a sprinkler system, Finn said.

“It appears to have been where the furnace comes through the roof,” he said.

Finn said crews would work with the building department during the investigation of the fire.

“We’re going to get a crane in here and start picking the building apart,” said Finn.

The beige, warehouse-type building was located between the Orient Heights and Suffolk Downs MBTA stations, across the street from the intersection of Walley and Bennington streets.

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As the fire raged, a wall of flames was visible on Bennington Street. Roads were closed and the MBTA suspended Blue Line service to the area. The blaze also drew scores of onlookers.

“It looks like a total loss,” said Gerard E. Millerick, 75.

Millerick said he has lived in the neighborhood for about 30 years. On some days, depending on how the wind blows, residents can smell fumes from varnishes used on the caskets drifting through the air.

Helen Antenucci, 76, an MBTA train driver, said she has smelled varnish, glue, and other chemicals from the building.

“They use everything,” said Antenucci, who was evacuated from her home. “I drive the train, even on a good day, even though they vent it, you can smell the varnish of the glue, whatever — it’s really strong.”

Finn said the company stored chemicals in the building, but he did not say what kind.

Residents were evacuated in the area of Bennington and Leyden streets because of the heavy smoke that enveloped the Orient Heights area.

Police officers and firefighters knocked on doors to alert people. Residents were sent to the Curtis Guild Elementary School and to the Paris Street Community Center. The Red Cross of Massachusetts, staff from the city’s Centers for Youth and Families, and other agencies were on hand to assist them.

“At the beginning we weren’t scared,” resident Ana Lezama said outside the school.

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Another resident, Leonard DeAngelico, was evacuated with his wife, children, and cat.

“I don’t mind it. I’d rather be safe than sorry,” he said.

The New England Casket Co., run since the 1930s by generations of the Tobia family, makes handcrafted caskets that are sold to distributors and funeral homes across the country, according to a Globe story published in 2017.

The family could not be reached for comment.

Finn said the owner and his son were on the scene of the fire Friday night.

“They’re very nice people,” he said.

New England Casket Co. enjoys a reputation for fine service and craftsmanship, local funeral home operators said.

“They’re a great company and I’ll miss them,” said Richard F. Gormley, owner of the Gormley Funeral Home in West Roxbury. He buys about 300 caskets per year from the company, he said.

“They are very nice family to deal with. Very accommodating. Give us fast service — exactly what we need.”

Sarah Forbes, the office manager at Stanetsky Memorial Chapels in Brookline, said the business is known for its high-grade work.

“They are known for really great quality, craftsmanship,” she said, and for being “really great people to work with.”

The operator of a funeral home in Sacramento that buys caskets from the company said the fire could have a major impact on the industry’s supply chain.

“It is going to be devastating to a lot of people,” said Dawn Lielke, a secretary at Pettigrew & Sons Casket Co., by telephone Friday. “Suppliers like New England just don’t exist anymore. They are the go-to casket people for companies like us.”

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She added, “I am devastated for everybody at New England, the family that owns the company, all the employees. . . . It’s just heartbreaking to think what is going to happen to them.”

Firefighters on a ladder truck did their best to attack the fire.
Firefighters on a ladder truck did their best to attack the fire.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
An evacuated resident covered her mouth as she made her way out of the Orient Heights neighborhood.
An evacuated resident covered her mouth as she made her way out of the Orient Heights neighborhood.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

Correspondent Breanne Kovatch contributed to this story. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald
@globe.com.