Officials: Welders accidentally started fatal Beacon Street fire, but they had no permit for their work

Fire and law-enforcement officials said today that the fire at 298 Beacon St. that killed two firefighters was likely caused by welders installing an iron hand rail in the rear of the neighboring 296 Beacon.

"We do not believe the fire was intentionally set," Boston Fire Commissioner John Hasson said at a press conference today with Police Commissioner William Evans and Ed Zabin, who heads the Suffolk County District Attorney's homicide division.

Hasson said the initial investigation showed sparks from the welding ignited wood in the basement, which then burst into flames that grew from the basement to the roof due to high winds coming off the Charles - right through a door that had been left open.

Hasson and Evans said they could find no evidence the welders had a required city permit for the work. Once a permit is pulled, a fire chief should go to the scene to determine whether a BFD detail is required, he said, adding the workers did not have a detail.

He said permits are required for welding because of the fire dangers it poses and that permit applicants need to show the steps they will take to minimize problems, such as having a fire extinguisher on hand and shielding any flammable material from the welding torch.

The two declined further comment on the welders.

Zabin said his office is continuing to investigate the fire and its causes and declined to say whether charges could result. However, he noted that Massachusetts does not have a negligent-homicide law.

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Comments

Any way we can get the name

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Any way we can get the name of that company to make sure they never work in Boston again?

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I suspect their name will pop up soon

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There are a bunch of reporters in the local media who are very good at ferreting out information like that.

In the meantime, though, the three officials declined to say anything at all about them given that there is still an investigation going on that might still result in criminal charges even if the cause was accidental.

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There's no need for that.

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This wasn't malicious. Chances are it wasn't even negligent. It was a terrible, terrible accident. And accidents happen.

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very negligent

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Working without a permit in the vicinity of wood without a fire extinguisher and the door open is kind of the definition of negligent. You can't have flammable materials in proximity to welding - direct contact isn't needed if the temperature is high enough. This was someone trying to do a repair on the cheap - the results of which are proof of why permits are required in the first place.

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Mea culpa

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Oops, I misread this line in the original post:
"Hasson and Evans said they could find no evidence the welders had a required city permit for the work."

I read it as, "...had required a city permit for the work." Meaning, I thought there were cases in which a welder would not require a permit. And that seemed odd to me…so I just read it again and realized my mistake.

Yes, it is negligent if city permits were required and they didn't get one. Definitely negligent.

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I'm going to argue that

I'm going to argue that circumventing permitting requirements (hey, on a windy day, it might be a good idea to have a fire detail if you're planning to weld!) is malicious. Sure there was no intent to kill anyone, but there was definitely intent to avoid procedures enacted to ensure safety. Perhaps if those permits HAD been acquired, two families would not be grieving.

If I was the owner of 296, I would be lawyering up as we speak.

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You use the word "malicious"

I don't think it means what you think it means.

Look up "ordinary negligence" vs "gross negligence" ... these are pretty well established concepts, legally.

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You're correct. But I think

You're correct. But I think my ultimate point remains valid. Those guys were avoiding established procedures for obtaining permission to work. Yeah, yeah, happens all the time, blah, blah, blah, but two people died from the fire the welders started.

If I were the owner of 296 I would be examining my contract with that firm, hoping that it clearly stated that it was the welding company who was responsible for obtaining the necessary permits and approvals for the job.

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I'm not trying to be pedantic and nit-picky, but

There's a world of difference, morally and legally, between, on the one hand, setting out with the intent to cause someone harm, and, on the other, acting with reckless indifference to the consequences of your actions.

That doesn't mean that acting with reckless indifference is a trifling matter -- it's a serious offense -- but it falls short of malice.

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Facepalm

Maybe I'm the only person here that has done any welding or cutting. Here's how it is: Cutting with an acetylene torch will burn anything within ten feet, period. Check out welding equipment at some point. Check out what they wear for protection. Arc welding will produce a bit less, but still, red hot (1400-1500 deg F) slag flying away.

Hell, I can probably light a cocktail napkin on fire with a hand grinder.

They know this. They should have pulled a permit. It was possibly negligent, certainly not smart and about as accidental as playing quick draw with a loaded gun.

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No names

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Generally when they do not release names, it probably is because they are connected to someone. If it was the normal off the street guy, they would have been keel-hauled already.

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I doubt the BFD would have

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I doubt the BFD would have deemed it necessary to have a detail here at all even if they had obtained permits - it's an interesting addition to the story, but ultimately I doubt it'll be relevant. How incredibly unfortunate for everyone involved... I can't imagine how those welders must feel. It's their fault, but obviously not intentional in any way.

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It's the lack of a permit that is relevant, not the detail.

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Whether or not BFD would have required a detail as part of permitting the work is irrelevant. The fact that BFD was apparently not given the opportunity to determine whether a detail should be required (because a permit was apparently not applied for) is going to be very relevant, and will form the basis for the civil case that is going to cost the welding company its entire insurance policy, if not its business.

I suspect that the DA will not attempt to bring any criminal charges, but this will go forward on the civil side. It will go forward quickly, too, and right to settlement because no company (the welders, insurance, etc.) is going to want to have its name tied to this tragic event for one second longer than it has to.

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certification of welders

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Part of the permitting process is proving that the people doing the welding are certified to do so and are properly trained in safety, with or without a fire watch. I'm wondering if this is why the permit wasn't pursued (and not just the cost, time delay, or bother of it).

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Actually, it matters a lot

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Whether or not BFD would have required a detail as part of permitting the work is irrelevant.

It is not the law that if you fail to comply with a regulation, you are responsible for any bad thing that happens after that, regardless of whether complying with the regulation would have prevented the bad thing.

If the facts show -- as well they might! -- that pulling the permit would have allowed the BFD to detect and remedy a hazardous condition, yes, it is likely that the welders will be found liable for negligence. But it's also possible that the danger here could not have been detected even if a permit had been pulled. The facts just aren't in yet.

More generally, that this is a horrible tragedy does not make it urgent that blame be assigned today rather than next week or next month. Rushing to judgment about what should have been done will not help anyone.

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Not quite.

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The relevant law, as I understand it prescribes that a permit is required for the type of welding work that was undertaken. The facts, as currently alleged, are that no permit was applied for, and that the welding work commenced anyway.

Failure to comply with the law in this respect is negligence per se. So unless the facts are not as alleged (no permit was required, or it was applied for and granted) those who failed to comply with the law and whose subsequent actions appear to be the proximate cause of a fire that claimed two lives would almost certainly get nailed in a civil tort case.

The suggestion that a the danger may not have been detected even if a permit was pulled is not relevant. That there is a risk of fire from welding is eminently foreseeable (and is presumably why the permitting requirement is in place) and that is all that matters in this context.

As I said earlier, it is not even worth talking about the law and liability here. Both the insurance co. and the welding co. are going to do whatever is necessary to make this go away as fast as possible. Two Boston firefighters are dead. Children have lost fathers, uncles, etc. as a result. No one is going in to court to defend - the only way this gets into court is if there is no (or very little) insurance and the welding company has assets and is unwilling to settle.

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Negligence per se...

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... is a doctrine that has been adopted in some states, but is not followed by the courts of Massachusetts.

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Well said!

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Bravo! However, as I am sure you know, while n-p-s might not be conclusive evidence at law per MacDonald, etc., in this case, I'd say it would be pretty damn, well, damning evidence. And regardless of the n-p-s issue, given that the other elements of a negligence claim seem to be reasonably clear, let me ask the question this way - considering all of the external factors (e.g., a widow plaintiff with three young children who have lost their dad) would you go to trial for the defendants here? If so, you are much, much braver (or at least care-free) than I could ever be, even if I were a trial lawyer (I'm not).

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I do a lot of work in Boston

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More than likely, the welders were illegals. The number of companies who do work in Boston without proper certification is staggering. Officials never take a stand on these companies. If it turns out to be so, I would like to see how far they ( the city) will go to change this.They need to make the company who hired them responsible.

Unfortunately, the building owner may be "decision proof"

My understanding is that it's the estate of a man who has been dead for about 7 or 8 years. A wrongful death decision is almost always in 7 figures, particularly with younger breadwinners with a long life expectancy like the firefighters who were lost. If the estate has low insurance limits, the survivors will end up owning a fire damaged building but nothing else.Once the value of the judgment exceeds the value of the only asset, the building, the survivors are (even more) out of luck. This kind of work in an older building without sprinklers is the very reason they require permits, as oversight. People who weld without permits may well be the kind of people who work without insurance. Lawyers/law enforcement may be mentioning the Cocoanut Grove fire in their pleadings. This just keeps getting more tragic.

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Could the insurance companies

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Could the insurance companies refuse to pay anything?

The welders allegedly had no permits, and if true, could their insurance company refuse payment? Insurance policies seem to have exclusions for negligence, criminal actions, or other irresponsible behavior.

The building at 298 Beacon apparently did not have sprinkers, and was probably "grandfathered" so could their insurance company refuse to pay as rumored in another large fire in Back Bay?

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yep, in theory anyhow

since you can't contract for an illegal act, which these welders were committing. (It's not like they were changing a tire. Ever been around one of those torches? It's a big deal when the wind ISN'T blowing 40 knots..When it is, those guys had to be crazy. It all comes down to the cost of litigation. Best comment above is that everyone will "lawyer up". Estate owns in an LLC, if I recall correctly, so it becomes a question of whether insurance responds and in what amount. Frankly, I'm surprised that the city has come out so quickly disavowing the ability to prosecute criminally. What do they have to lose by waiting? Something doesn't smell right here.

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The origin of the fire was at 296 Beacon.

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If so, that will be the litigation target.

The estate that is bickering over 298 Beacon is collateral damage.

With luck the owners of 296 will have more to take.

BOSTON -- The fire that killed two firefighters as it burned through a brownstone in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood was caused by welders working at the back of a neighboring building, the Boston Fire Department said Friday.
Welders were working on an iron railing behind 296 Beacon St., Boston Fire Commissioner John Hasson said at a news conference. Sparks from the welding got under the shingles, “festered there for a while,” and then were fed by the wind blowing off the Charles River, he said. The two firefighters were trapped in the basement of 298 Beacon St. as the fire raged out of control.

From Zell A Times.
http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-sparks-from-welders-caused-fi...

Maybe it is a huge whoyaknow where the swine who scheduled and approved this job is another importantly important local and the terror of ruffling important feathers has the spokes-person all clammed up.

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Oh, it's relevant.

I can absolutely guarantee you that there would have been a cutting detail there. Old neighborhood, windy day, obviously flammable materials around...yup.

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Interesting question

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If they had a permit but weren't required to have any fire detail present, would the fact that they were on-site when the fire call came in have been relayed to the firemen?

The fact that there wasn't even a chance of this happening meant that Engine 33 went in the front door, determined they needed to go to the basement to fight the fire, and worked towards the back before getting trapped. If they had known that there was welding taking place on the back fence area, then they might have approached from Back Street, knocked down the fire before it was able to get out of hand and everything would have had a different outcome.

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Surely there should be some

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Surely there should be some common sense that says welding near old buildings on a very windy day is not a good idea?

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Or when working with fire

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Or when working with fire have a freaking $10 extinguisher on hand at all times.

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Legislating in arrears

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If what you suggest actually happens, then my hypothesis that the T's funding problem will not get fixed until someone dies due to unperformed maintenance is looking discouragingly good.

Incidentally, many jurisdictions do not have a "negligent homicide law" at least in part because "homicide" is typically understood to require some level of intent (or at least, in a few places, "recklessness", which is a higher standard of idiocy than negligence), and negligence essentially means there is no intent.

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Negligent

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Wouldn't vehicular manslaughter fall under the term negligent? I agree homicide probably isn't the right word here. But manslaughter seems to be in play

Lawyers shouldn't be allowed

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Lawyers shouldn't be allowed to write laws at they benefit from the proliferation of laws which then require the services of more lawyers. A self serving circle of life.

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Hate on the lawyers?

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Perhaps, but consider this - most members of the General Court are not lawyers, and often (and as have written about here before), laws are written by their 20-something interns and clerks who aren't either.

As Will so elegantly pointed out above, this hasn't always worked out so well for us.

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No "negligent homicide law"? What does this even mean?

There's a law against "negligent homicide" by motor vehicle, for one thing- so the concept of people being severely punished for reckless, illegal conduct that causes others grave injury or death is clearly not unheard-of., even in our insane little backwater. Then there's a little something called "manslaughter". We do have that concept in Massachusetts, right? What the heck kind of cop-out is this? I don't find it at all credible that there are no precedents in MA for holding someone criminally accountable for violating a safety regulation when such a violation then results in someone else'a death. In that case, what the hell are safety regulations for? Sounds more like prosecutorial laziness or lack of courage.
And the whole "imagine how they feel now, that's punishment enough" line of thinking? I would offer that the welders are probably not suffering nearly as badly as the families of the dead firefighters. And an open and honest judicial reckoning would probably do something beneficial for their consciences, and offer a possibility for atonement, whereas burying their identities and pretending nothing happened might make their putrefying guilt even more of a burden. Of course they didn't mean to start a fire- but that doesn't meant nobody's to blame. Look at the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island- band manager Daniel Biechele was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in starting that fire. Does anybody think he intended to kill all those people? Of course not, but he paid for it by doing prison time for manslaughter (looks like he served about 2 before being paroled).

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Massachusetts Law Since 1944

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http://masscases.com/cases/sjc/316/316mass383.html: "conduct does not become criminal until it passes the borders of negligence and gross negligence and enters into the domain of wanton or reckless conduct. There is in Massachusetts at common law no such thing as 'criminal negligence.'"

The motor vehicle homicide statute is the exception, not the rule.

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Wanton and Reckless

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This phrase described the owners of the Cocoanut Grove, who chained their fire doors shut even though they had been told not to because someone could get killed. It's recognizing an action as a threat to life and safety and running it anyway, leading to an unintended but foreseeable death or serious injury.

As stupid and irresponsible as it is, using a welding torch outside a brick building is not the same thing.

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Could potentially rise to

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Could potentially rise to involuntary manslaughter in theory seems like.

Welders

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I wonder if these welders are the welders that stand in the fringe of Home Depot's parking lots looking for work?

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Ok...

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So who at that company do we slap the bracelets on? Someone needs to face the wrath.

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Not quite

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Sources said that the investigators believe the welders were aware of the fire and did not call 911 or alert anyone occupying the building about the blaze.

The operative phrase here being "investigators believe". In other words, more unconfirmed speculation on the part of the media. And shame on anyone who takes the word of unnamed sources as gospel.

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Possibly not the time or place...

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But maybe it's time to examine the overzealous laws in this city and state? I don't think anyone is arguing that you absolutely should have a permit to do welding on an inhabited building in a dense neighborhood. But few people, including professionals, take permits seriously in this city since they're required for doing anything to your house beyond painting (and you actually need them even for exterior painting if your frontage is insufficient and will require your ladder to be on city property). Unless something happens, working without a permit isn't even enforced. Many licensed contractors will come work on a home and take the minute risk that the city will actually send someone out before they're gone and say "hey, stop working on that house."

If I talk to a neighbor about my concerns about, say, people they've hired to weld without a permit and proper precautions, are the neighbors going to listen, because they know that laws/codes usually exist for a good reason? Or am I going to be seen as the same sort of person who complains when someone is replacing a couple pieces of cracked siding or strapping their downspout more securely to their house? Due to the fact that permits are required for work that has nothing to do with hazardous equipment or structural integrity of the building, people don't see them as something that's in place for a reason.

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Two firefighters are dead.

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Two firefighters are dead. The people who lived in that building lost their homes. Have a heart, eeka.

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Not the first time repairmen caused a major fire

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Remember the mansion in J.P. that a painter nearly destroyed because he was using some kind of torch to soften and peel the paint on a wood column? Fire jumped into the hollow column which led to much of the house burning.

I don't remember there being more than property damage. But does anyone know whether there were civil or even criminal charges resulting from that fire?

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look at your homeowner's insurance

your liability coverage also includes fire damage to nearby properties which are damaged due to your negligence. (E.g., gas grills, burning brush legally). This will be a litigation machine. Adjacent properties with smoke damage, the survivors of the firefighters killed, the families of the other firefighters injured who may not be able to go back to work, this will go on for years.

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Hold Someone Accountable

Bottom line to me someone did wrong and is accountable....permits not filed and paid for. Fire Dept. not notified of welding, welding not postponed, due to windy conditions.
I would not have had any type of spark producing or fire going on such a windy day as that Wednesday was, and I am not a licensed tradesperson.
Whether this was a big fire, small fire, even if lives were not lost....proper welding/repair procedures were not followed. Some rules and permits needed are in place for good reason. Safety, common sense, to oversee what the workers or contractors are doing at a job site. Better do it right and safely, than sorry later. How many of us have to follow proper safety procedures on our jobs? Lock out Tag outs...proper equipment, training and updated training, OSHA rules, MSDS manuals., etc. I've been on jobs where someone cut corners, and major emergencys and injuries occurred.

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