The Paramount Hotel
Friday evening, January 28, 1966 was one of those bone
chilling nights that we get once or twice every winter in
Boston. This evening the temperature was in the low teens
and the wind was blowing over 40 miles an hour. In some
firehouses around Boston, dinner was finished, in others,
firefighters still waited to eat. In all of them, the jakes
hoped for a quite night. It was simply too cold to face
the elements. In 1966, Boston firefighters worked two night
tours in a row. Because of the work group schedule, some
members would be off the following night and others would
be back for the Saturday night tour. This wouId be a night
tour that the Boston Fire Department would long remember.
At about 1838 hours, a third floor resident and part-time
handyman for the Paramount Hotel, Herb McBride, detected
an odor of natural gas in the stairway going down to the
first floor. He brought this to the attention of the desk
clerk, Mr. Ronald Coyne and Mr. Joseph Elliot, the elevator
operator. The desk clerk advised them to notify the manager
of Leonardi's bar, which was adjacent to the hotel lobby.
Mr. McBride headed that way. Mr. Coyne, the desk clerk then
started toward the rear stairs and reached the first landing
where the odor was very intense. Aware that something was
wrong, he started to retrace his steps to the desk to notify
the Boston Gas Company. Before he could reach the desk,
the explosion occurred and he found himself in the cellar,
as did the elevator operator. Mr. McBride was directly on
the sidewalk in front of Leonardi's Bar at that moment.
This area of downtown was known as "the combat zone"
because of all the cafes, bars and adult entertainment available.
A Friday night would bring out a larger crowd than other
This complex contained several connected buildings:
the Paramount Hotel was an 11 story, first class building
the Plymouth Hotel, an 8 story building with smaller buildings
21 Boylston St., Chartells Coffee Shop
19 Boylston St., Leonardi's Café
17 Boylston St., the lobby for the Paramount Hotel
15 Boylston St., Plymouth Hotel lobby
13 Boylston St., The Gilded Cage, (a Café)
At that time, all of these buildings were 50 years old.
At 1838 hours, Boston Police Officers, George Ruck and William
Crosby heard a loud explosion as they were patrolling the
area in the "200 Wagon". They alerted the dispatcher
that an explosion had occurred at the Paramount Hotel Bar
and Grille located at 17-19 Boylston Street. All available
personnel were dispatched. Boston Police notified the Fire
Alarm Office and companies were on their way.
At 1840 hours, Engine Co. 7 and Ladder Co. 17 were "stilled"
to 17 Boylston Street and Box 1471 (Washington and Essex
Streets) was transmitted by Fire Alarm. Engine Co. 26, Engine
Co. 10 and Ladder Co. 8 with the Rescue Co., Deputy Chief
John O'Mara of Division 1, District Chief Galvin of District
4 and Acting District Chief Feeney in District 3 all responded
on the first alarm. As the Deputy was responding, he may
have said to his Aide, John Donovan," I'm glad I have
those heavy socks on in case this turns out to be something."
They did not have to wait long to find out. Engine Co. 7
reported they were off at Box 1471 and "we have something
but I don't know what!"
With smoke, haze and dust they didn't know what they had.
Captain Charlie Griffin ordered a big line started as fire
could be seen inside the building. People were in the street
screaming and others could be seen at windows on the upper
floors. The fire in the rear intensified and started to
spread to the upper floors and toward the front. Gas could
be smelled in the street as the companies arrived. At 1845
hrs Deputy Chief O'Mara ordered a 2nd alarm and ambulances.
Engine Cos 25, 3,39 and 8 responded along with Ladder Cos.
3 and 18.
The explosion had blown out part of the first floor walls
and the sidewalk was now in the basement. By now, there
was heavy fire and smoke showing. People were at windows
on the upper floors calling for help and one person was
hanging over the balcony unconscious. Deputy Fire Chief
O'Mara wasted no time in ordering alarms; 3rd alarm at 1846
hours with Engine Cos 24, 37, 22 and 50 and Ladder Co. 15
responding. Ladder Cos 15 and 18 responded down Boylston
Street from Tremont and were able to throw their sticks
to the front of the building. Ladder Co. 3 came up Washington
Street and had to leave the piece on Washington Street.
The 4th alarm at 1847 hours with Engine Cos 42, 34, 2 and
32 responding. At 1848 hours he ordered the 5th alarm and
Engines Cos 53, 40, 56 and 20 responded. The High Pressure
was raised to 175 lbs at 1958 hours.
Chief of Department William Terrenzi arrived at the fire
at 1900 hours and he ordered Assistant Chiefs Clougherty
and Howard to respond and also Deputy Fire Chief Flanagan
all from home. At 1910 hours he requested the Building Department
and Building Commissioner York was notified.
Engine Co. 26 ran a big line to the front of the building
and started to hit the fire in the front while Engine Co.
7 was doing the same. Ladder Co. 17 was throwing a 35' ladder
to the extreme right side of the balcony level next to the
Paramount Hotel sign. Ten occupants of the hotel who would
escape safely used this ladder. The chauffeur was getting
the big Seagrave 100' aerial up as there were people waiting
in the windows. As these companies were arriving the police
were removing a victim. As the Ladder Companies arrived
they were ordered to get ground ladders as the trucks could
not get close enough. Engine Co. 7 had let Ladder Co. 17
get the front of the building. Companies were able to get
into the small alley that ran on the "exposure 2"
side, known as Bumstead Court. This gave access to this
side of the building and ground ladders were used. The cold
temperatures would turn the water from the hoses into ice
almost at once. Extra manpower was needed with the ground
ladders due to ice.
After the 5th alarm was ordered, Deputy Fire Chief O'Mara
ordered the Edison and Gas companies to respond. At 1859,
he ordered the Gas Company again but said, "urgent."
One Of The Most Spectacular Rescues Ever Witnessed Happened
At This Fire.
One of the most spectacular rescues ever witnessed happened
at this fire. A woman was seen in the basement area, as
the sidewalk was blow away. Heavy fire was showing in this
area. Firefighter Bill Shea of the Rescue Company jumped
into the basement with total disregard for his safety. The
woman was unconscious and pinned by a beam, only her head
was out of the water. She was not only in danger of being
burned but also drowning. He managed to get the woman up,
and with the help of other firefighters a ladder was dropped
into the basement and Firefighter Shea brought this person
to safety. Firefighter Shea was burned about the ears and
hands and was transported to a hospital and would remain
off duty for weeks. He was awarded the "John Fitzgerald
Medal" for most meritorious act of 1966.
The fire extended from the basement to the upper floors
via the elevator shaft. Companies had to be aware of heavy
concentrations of natural gas. As the fire was darkening
down in some areas, firefighters were assigned to search
various parts of the building and ladders were used to get
to the upper parts of the building.
Lines were taken off standpipes in the building on the
exposure 2 side and used from the upper floors to hit some
of the fire in the Paramount Hotel that could not be reached
from the street. The narrow width of Bumstead Court and
debris in the street prevented Ladder Co. 15 from turning
in on their arrival.
A Total Of 57 People Injured. By Morning The Death Toll
Stood At 10; An 11th Died A Few Days Later.
Boston City hospital received 19 victims and 21 victims
were sent to Massachusetts General Hospital. A total of
57 people were injured. The Medical Examiner worked through
the night to identify the victims. It would take several
days before all of the dead would be identified. The Boston
Police used police wagons to transport most of the injured
there were only a few ambulances at Boston City Hospital;
they did not have the excellent EMS services that are around
today. Over 40 Police Ambulances were at the fire. By morning
the death toll stood at 10; an 11th person died a few days
Throughout the evening extra companies were special called;
they included Engine Cos 51, 55 ,43, 21, 5, 16 and 17 and
Ladder Cos. 30, 23 and 14. Ladder Co. 14 came in Avery Street
and into Bumstead Court to the rear of the Paramount and
threw their stick to the upper floors. They were the only
truck to make it to the rear. Some fire companies were at
the scene most of the night.
Because large plate glass windows were blown out around
the fire site, there was plenty of police work. Police spotted
3 men looting stores opposite the fire building and they
were arrested. Police had to watch for this as well as crowd
control and rescue activities. The Boston Police had over
140 officers at the fire including 40 from the "Tactical
Police Squad." All officers were under the command
of Police Commissioner Edmund McNamara.
“The Magnificent Courage Of Firefighters, Police
And Other City Workers Earned Our Gratitude.”
Governor Volpe offered state assistance after he visited
the scene and Mayor Collins issued the statement, "The
magnificent courage of the firefighters, police and other
city workers earned our gratitude," after he visited
the scene and was escorted by Chief of Department William
Terrenzi.The chief remained on the scene throughout the
entire night until the early morning hours.
At 2310 hours Chief Terrenzi called for a fire detail that
consisted of Engine Companies 9, 33, 49, and 52 and Ladder
Companies 16 and 22. A fire detail continued until the early
morning hours on January 30th. At this time the building
was turned over to the Building Department.
On the early morning of February 2, 1966, 6 people remained
in Boston City Hospital and 4 of the dead were still unidentified.
Most of these were burned so bad that identification would
be difficult. Also further searches in the building were
called off, as the stability of parts of the building was
in question. The Building Commissioner, Mr. York called
for a company to come in and "shore up" parts
of it that were in danger of collapsing.
Several restaurants and other establishments in the area
had to remain closed due to the shattered windows and other
damage that was caused by the explosion. The Red Cross served
over 500 meals at the fire Friday night and into Saturday
Investigations were started immediately. An Inspector from
the Boston Fire Department Arson Squad was assigned to this
fire as his only assignment. Interrogation of all occupants,
the injured, known incendiarists, the trustees for the owner's
etc. was begun by the Fire Department. The Boston Police,
Gas Company, and Edison all started investigations. The
District Attorney's Office of Suffolk County became involved.
A demolition company was contracted to assist in the investigation.
The street and remains of the sidewalk had to be dug up.
Boylston Street, in this area, would be closed for days.
A known "arsonist" was in the area that night
with his girlfriend and spotted at the scene. He was questioned
at great length but was not a suspect in this fire. The
Arson Squad considered him a suspect for several fires in
the South End.
Public Safety Report
On February 15, 1966 the Department of Public Safety issued
a report that after careful examination they found a circumferential
crack in a 8" gas main. This crack was located in close
proximity to two electric service conduits, which supplied
energy to the Paramount Hotel through the front wall of
the areaway under the front sidewalk.
It was determined that the initial explosion and flame
propagation was of sufficient force and intensity to blow
off the metal latticed-worked elevators on every floor leaving
them resting or laying in the passageway connecting all
areas of every floor. This allowed the fire to travel up
and "mushroom" at the roof level and extend into
each floor. All residents and/or occupants of the building
above the 2nd floor managed to escape or were rescued with
the exception of a fatality on the 10th floor who apparently
had sufficient time to evacuate the building but failed
to do so. He was in conversation with other residents and
was not in any difficulty at that time. The Fire Department
was unaware of his presence and the logical search sequence
permitted sufficient time to elapse so that the extending
top floor fire enveloped his room and forced him into the
top floor passageway where he was found by firefighters
and removed. Two bodies were found in the basement and the
rest were found at the street level at the bar and one at
the 2nd floor level.
The conclusions after all the investigations were that a
gaseous vapor had entered the elevator shaft and must have
mixed in proportions within the explosion limits for the
dislocation of every elevator door on every floor. The initial
explosion occurred in the main basement in the middle of
the building as the cross members were bent upward on the
underside of the street level and downward on the floor
of the basement level. Some beams were sheared off which
permitted the street level flooring to drop into the basement.
It is possible the gas was ignited from the action of the
elevator motors. As there was no gas odor the day before
it seems evident that the crack must have occurred sometime
just before the explosion. The final control of the fire
did not occur until the 8-inch gas main was totally shut
Boston Municipal Court Ruling
Chief Justice Elijah Adlow of the Boston Municipal Court
ruled, as a result of an inquest, that the evidence indicated
the explosion was caused by gas leaking from an 8-inch main
in Boylston Street and seeping into the basement of the
Paramount Hotel. Judge Adlow added, "The lesson of
this disaster will be lost if no program is inaugurated
to reduce materially the hazards which are involved in the
distribution of gas." He also said, "Our fire
departments should master the technique of turning off supplies
of gas in threatened areas and should not be dependent on
the personnel of the gas companies for this service."
Judge Adlow said it was not until 2010 hours that the last
of four valves controlling gas flow into the explosion area
were closed. He concluded in his report that "no further
legal proceedings be pursued" in view of the lack of
any violations of law connected with the blast.
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