May 22, 1964 was a nice day. A little windy, perhaps, but with temperatures in the 70s, it was a good day to open the windows or go outside and chat with a neighbor, which is what one resident was doing early that afternoon:
A Mrs. Salvatore Sabella residing at No. 24 Bellflower Street, first floor, was on Bellflower Street apparently chatting with a neighbor across the street when the neighbor suddenly exclaimed! "Look, Mrs. Walsh's house is on fire." Mrs. Sabella hurried across the street to her apartment and entering it immediately telephoned the fire department [at 1:38 p.m.] and notified them of the fire at the rear of No. 26 Bellflower Street, and ended the notification with the words, "I got to get out of here."
According to the official Boston Fire Department report on one of the largest fires in modern city history, as firefighters on Engine 21 and Ladder 20 raced to the scene, rubbish collectors who happened to be at work on the street at the moment, rushed into 26 Bellflower and got residents out, ""in one case actually dropping the tenant from the second floor front porch into the arms of other rubbish collectors in the street."
The first firefighters arrived at 1:40 p.m. with flames shooting out of two of the buildings - mostly three deckers, mostly separated by no more than five feet from their neighbors. They immediately called for reinforcements.
By 1:46, fire commanders were striking a fifth alarm as winds gusting up to 31 m.p.h. rapidly spread flames and burning embers; a minute later, they had to ask for police help to control "hundreds of spectators and motorists who might very well interfere with the tactical placement of fire appartus which was going to be critical and would not bear the handicap of delay caused by unthinking motorosts, thrill seekers, sightseers, distraught residents and possible looters."
By the time the fire was declared out at 9:56 p.m., 17 buildings on Bellflower and neighboring streets were completely destroyed and scores more were damaged. Some 53 families lost their homes - but no residents were killed. The fire department estimated damage at $750,000 - about $5.7 million in today's dollars.
At the height of the fire, 650 firefighters from Boston and from as far away as Lawrence and Holbrook battled the blaze - and managed to keep it from turning into a literal firestorm that could have spread even farther.
The cause? Probably a smoker:
An overstuffed chair or divan was on the rear porch of the first floor which was exposed directly to the prevailing wind. It is the presumption that a discarded smoker's article was carried by extremely high velocity wind from some adjacent point which lodged in this porch-stored overstuffed piece of furniture. This provided a good source of fueld to incubate a possible glowing cigarette end or lit tobacco in some form which was fanned int sufficient intensity to ignite the material of the chair which progressively accelerated by this same wind force began to burn freely.
- Boston City Archives collection - Photos and copies of the BFD report on the fire and a BRA report on relocating residents.
- Boston Fire Historical Society recap and photos of the fire.
- The lessons of Bellflower - by the son of one of the firefighters.
Photos, from the Boston City Archives, posted under this Creative Commons license.
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