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‘This smoke is ridiculous’: East Boston fire displaces nearby residents

An East Boston resident covered her mouth as she evacuated Friday night.
An East Boston resident covered her mouth as she evacuated Friday night.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

Plumes of smoke could be seen down the block as Helen Antenucci and her daughter Dayna packed their two Shih Tzus, Cain and Bailey, into a car before leaving their Leyden Street home Friday evening.

“It started this afternoon and it’s gotten a lot worse,” Dayna said. “This smoke is ridiculous.”

The pair was going to a relative’s house. They were among the scores of East Boston residents evacuated from the Orient Heights neighborhood because of a massive 9-alarm fire at the New England Casket Co.

Helen, who is 76 years old and drives MBTA Blue Line trains, packed her uniform because she is scheduled to work on Saturday morning.

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“I have the first train out tomorrow,” she said. “What am I going to do, tell them ‘No, I can’t come in?’”

About 100 to 150 homes closest to the fire were told to evacuate, according to Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office. Boston police officers and firefighters knocked on doors. Shelters were opened at the Curtis Guild Elementary School and the Paris Street Community Center.

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

Then she saw the smoke blew a few blocks away, and the flashing lights of emergency vehicles.

“In one moment, everything changed,” she said.

Thomas Miller said he was told to leave his house by an emergency worker.

“I wish they would’ve just let me drive off,” he said outside the school. “They wouldn’t let me take my car.”

Miller said he was told would probably be able to return home after an hour. “There’s no way it’s going to be an hour,” he said.

Residents were not allowed to return until just before 11 p.m., after the heavy fire was knocked down.

Some residents were frustrated they had to leave in the first place.

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“This sucks,” said George Leonhardt, a 39-year-old project manager who was evacuated from his Gladstone Street home. “I’ve never lived anywhere where I needed to be evacuated because of a disaster.”

Leonhardt said he planned to stay the night at a hotel in Framingham.

Dozens of firefighters were expected to remain on the scene all night.

The fire, which started just after 3 p.m. at the large industrial building on Bennington Street and raged for hours, drew about 200 firefighters from Boston and nearby communities, including Chelsea and Winthrop.

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

Officials monitored the quality of the air Friday as chemicals from materials such lacquers used to finish caskets filled the air. Boston Fire Commissioner Joe Finn said parts of the neighborhood were evacuated out of “an abundance of caution.”

As Friday evening approached dusk, smoke still billowed through the neighborhood, blotting out the sky on some streets. Some residents wrapped their faces with scarves, others had white masks covering their mouths.

On Leyden Street, authorities asked residents of a row of triple deckers to evacuate, said Kori Olsen, a 52-year-old deli worker who lives on the street. As of 6:30 p.m., police had not asked Olsen to leave. His home was right next to an area cordoned off with yellow police tape. People living in homes inside the cordoned-off area had been evacuated.

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Olsen said he was most concerned about his dog, a 3-year-old pit bull boxer mix named Bubba, in the event of an evacuation.

He was adamant: “I’m not leaving without my dog.”

He added, “All we can do is hope and pray no one got hurt and hope they knock it down quickly.”

Jayne Biagotti, 62, has lived in East Boston her whole life. She said the casket company is a landmark in the neighborhood. People use it as a reference point when they’re telling directions.

“There’s so much change in this neighborhood,” she said. “And this is one more change. It’s like losing an old friend.”


Alejandro Serrano can be reached at alejandro.serrano@globe.com.