Hotel Vendome: Remembering the Worst Firefighting Tragedy in Boston’s History

By FireRescue magazine staff

On June 17, 1972, nine Boston Fire Department (BFD) firefighters were killed and eight others were injured when a section of the Hotel Vendome collapsed during overhaul operations. Those killed in the line of duty were:
• Firefighter Thomas W. Beckwith (Engine 32)
• Firefighter Joseph E. Boucher (Engine 22)
• Lieutenant Thomas J. Carroll (Engine 32)
• Firefighter Charles E. Dolan (Ladder 13)
• Lieutenant John E. Hanbury, Jr. (Ladder 13)
• Firefighter John E. Jameson (Engine 22)
• Firefighter Richard B. Magee (Engine 33)
• Firefighter Paul J. Murphy (Engine 32)
• Firefighter Joseph P. Saniuk (Ladder 13)
The Hotel Vendome Fire was the worst firefighting tragedy in Boston history.

At 5:28 p.m., all five floors of a large section of the building collapsed, trapping firefighters below.

The Fire
On the day of the fire, the seven-story Hotel Vendome—a luxury hotel located just north of Copley Square in Boston’s Bay Bay—was undergoing renovations. One of the workers discovered that a fire had begun in an enclosed space between the third and fourth floors, and at 2:35 p.m., he rang Box 1571. A working fire was called in at 2:44 p.m., and subsequent alarms were rung at 2:46 p.m., 3:02 p.m., and 3:06 p.m.

First responders arrived to find heavy smoke filling the upper floors. A total of 16 engine companies, five ladder companies, two aerial towers and a heavy rescue company responded. There were more than 100 firefighters were working to contain the blaze.

The fire was brought largely under control by 4:30 pm. The chief ordered that the Canteen, a mobile refreshment stand, be opened, signaling a symbolic end to the fire. The job was not done, though. Several crews, including Ladder 13 and Engines 22 and 32, were still performing overhaul and clean-up duties.

Then at 5:28 p.m., all five floors of a 40' by 45' section at the southeast corner of the building collapsed without warning, burying a ladder truck and 17 firefighters beneath a two-story pile of debris. Fire officials immediately ordered all workers on the scene to abandon any firefighting efforts and concentrate on digging in the debris. Spectators joined in the search, and a heavy crane was brought into action in an attempt to clear away the debris. Eight firefighters were rescued from the debris.

In an interview with a local newspaper the day after the fire, Capt. John Collins said that the collapse was “absolutely unexpected.”

Although the cause of the fire was not known, the subsequent collapse was attributed to the failure of an overloaded 7" steel column whose support had been weakened when a new duct had been cut beneath it, exacerbated by the extra weight of water used to fight the fire on the upper floors.

Lessons Learned from Tim Sendelbach, Editor-in-Chief, FireRescue magazine
The Hotel Vendome Fire is unquestionably one of the most notable fires regarding structural collapse and the associated risk to firefighters. Today, the lessons from the Vendome Fire have a great deal of significance as we continue to experience an increase in structural collapses, lightweight building materials and modified construction techniques. Some critical points to consider:

• The building is at its worst after the fire. Never underestimate the risk posed by a building damaged by fire.
• Every gallon of water that goes in and does not drain off adds an additional 8.34 lbs. that the building must hold (not to mention the added weight of working crewmembers deployed throughout the structure).
• Always be on the lookout for signs of potential collapses: water in/no water out, multiple floors of fire damage, fire attacks beyond 10 minutes, lightweight building construction, unprotected structural components with visible fire damage, etc.
• Risk a lot to save a lot—avoid unnecessary risk for property or lives that are already lost.
• Think pessimistically when operating during prolonged firefights: defensive positioning of apparatus, limited personnel exposure (don’t overload damaged structures with additional personnel), etc.
• Assign an Incident Safety Officer—all incidents should have a designated safety officer to constantly monitor/prevent unnecessary risk.
• Attempt to establish a secondary means of egress when operating above the first floor.
• Assign a dedicated RIT to standby when operating in an IDLH environment. Overall operations should be considered IDLH.
• Accountability—establish/isolate entry points for all members entering and exiting the structure.
• Consider the use of demolition services for buildings where the risk to firefighters is too great.

On the 25th anniversary of the fire, a monument was dedicated to the firefighters who lost their lives on June 17, 1972.

On June 17, 1997, the 25th-anniversary of the Hotel Vendome Fire, a monument was dedicated on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, a few yards from the site of the fire. The ceremony was attended by thousands of firefighters and their families. The monument features a firefighter’s helmet and coat cast in bronze draped over a low arc of dark granite. An inscription bears the timeline of the fire, the names of the men who died as well as quotes and statements related to the fire.

Hotel Information
Built in 1871 and massively expanded in 1881, the Vendome was a luxury hotel located just north of Copley Square. The Vendome was called by its owners “one of the most palatial and most elaborately furnished hotels in the world.” The hotel hosted a sitting president (Grover Cleveland) along with many other dignitaries.

The popularity of the hotel led to the fateful decision, around 1890, to carve a new ballroom out of several rooms on the first floor. To create the larger space, the main load-bearing wall that ran across the first floor of the building was removed, which left only a single cast iron column to support the weight of the four floors above. Nobody could have possibly imagined the sequence of events that would doom nine of the men whose job it was to save it from fire 80 years later.

In 1971, the year of the original building’s centennial, the Vendome was purchased. The new owners began renovating the hotel into condominiums and a shopping mall. It was during this conversion work in 1972 that the tragic fire occurred.

After the fire, the Vendome was successfully renovated, and it now hosts residential condominium units and commercial units.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Comment by Clyde R Chapman on June 17, 2010 at 5:12pm
I went to Boston with a busload of firefighters from all over Maine to this funeral.
I still remember how sad it was.

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