The day a Dorchester street burst into flames

Bellflower Street fire

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.

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Photos, from the Boston City Archives, posted under this Creative Commons license.



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What is truly amazing

What is amazing is that this didn't happen much more often, given how balloon-framed wooden triple-deckers are packed into such large areas of the region.

Had the triple-decker boom started a couple decades earlier, it probably would have been halted as soon as the first neighborhoods exploded. Advances in firefighting made such construction possible (note that Chicago is packed with similar structures with identical floor-plans to Boston's, all of them brick).

Note that the burned over area on Bellflower and Dorset has been rebuilt with a large, three-deck brick structure, Bellflower Gardens. With the central garden area, it looks like a nice place to live.

And people still don't learn.

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And people still don't learn. New wooden multi families are constructed all around Boston. I see them all over East Boston.

Complete with...

Complete with fire suppression systems in said new construction. At least, I assume so. Anything with 3 or more units, I believe? Not that sprinklers make them totally fire-proof, but they're a tremendous advance from the past.


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gives a false sense of security. The duplex in NH where the cop was shot and killed, then later burned to the ground, was a fully sprinklered building. Put 6 units with parking for 4 cars in a spot where there used to be a triple decker and it is just a matter of time before a conflagration happens again.

Yes, that's true, there are limits to sprinklers

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You left out the part about where the reason that NH house exploded was because it was filled with natural gas and one of the guy's bullets set off the gas. I'm going to believe that's not an everyday occurrence.

The sprinklered house

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was on fire before the explosion. The sprinklers could not contain the fire causing the ignition of the natural gas pouring into the building.

Didn't help in Quincy or Peabody

In both of those cases, where multiple unit large wooden buildings went up fast, the fires started outside.

I don't get those giant "colonoid" buildings, anyway. Why would you want to have wooden siding to "blend in" and "look traditional" when colonial-era builders would not likely have used wood for that size and type of construction?


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didn't help the a World Trade Center either.

It's cheap and meets code

The sprinklers in the Quincy and Peabody fires meet code, except the code is a life safety, not a building safety issue. The job of the sprinklers is to get everyone out, but not save the property. That is why they carry good insurance. It is cheaper to pay the insurance each year rather than pay for the really good sprinklers up front.

As far as people saying we shouldn't build on top of each other like that in order to prevent fires spreading, we have done that. It's called Gwinnett County Georgia.

As far as someone saying sparklers didn't help the WTC, there is a big difference between a cigarette setting a piece of paper on fire that can be doused quickly with sprinklers than a few thousand of gallons of jet fuel immediately immolating upon impact. Go back to your infowars foilhead.

Until I saw this this morning

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Until I saw this this morning on the Boston Globe site, I had never heard of this fire. I've never heard it mentioned among the more well known Boston fires-the great fire of 1872, Coconut Grove, Vendome, the "five alarms in five minutes" fire are a few that come to mind.