A memory painful and indelible
Ed Burrell, the only remaining survivor of those who fought the 1941 blaze in Brockton's Strand Theatre, will be on hand Saturday as a sculpture honoring his fallen comrades is dedicated
Each anniversary - and there have been 66 of them - rekindles painful memories, and nightmares. Ed Burrell is 93 years old, and long ago retired from his firefighting duties, but each year he stands at a memorial ceremony, paying sad tribute to the comrades who died on one of Brockton's most horrible nights.
Burrell is the last living survivor of those who fought the Strand Theatre blaze that, with one roar, became one of the deadliest of its time, claiming the lives of 13 firefighters. And this Saturday, he'll bear witness for them as a monument is dedicated in their memory.
It was March 10, 1941, and Burrell was a newlywed, on the squad for just two years. He was only a few feet away from the theater's roof when it collapsed, trapping firefighters inside. Burrell can still remember the thrashing sounds of metal and timber falling, of yells and screeches. And the silence.
"I went blank, really," said Burrell. "I just couldn't imagine."
Burrell doesn't mind talking about the fire, because he's the only one who can.
The monument has been seven years in the making. Its $150,000 cost was paid with the proceeds of raffles and potluck dinners. It's a bronze statue of a firefighter kneeling in grief, the names of the 13 firefighters engraved on a base. It stands just over 10 feet tall.
"It's long overdue," said Burrell. "It was heartbreaking for all of us."
He remembers clearly what happened that night 67 years ago. He had been assigned to Ladder No. 2. when the fire began, a bit past midnight. At first, the blaze seemed to be routine, nothing like the shoe factory fires they faced.
Firefighters - who, in that day, had no face masks or radios - attacked the inner walls of the 1,685-seat theater, empty by that time, while others worked to vent the roof. Burrell's crew was directed to the roof of the adjacent Kennedy building, to run a hose down into the flames. At one point, he was told to leverage a ladder down to the roof of the theater, to get closer. Then the roof collapsed.
All he could see was crumbling of metal and timber, and smoke. He remembers it was cold out. But still he sprayed water because every time he stopped he could hear screams. He couldn't make out the words, but maybe the injured couldn't stand the heat from the rubble, so he sprayed to cool them down. He did so for hours, until another crew arrived.
"I remember calling my wife, and telling her I was all right," he said. Before his call, she did not know firefighters had died.
The 13 firefighters were wedged between seats on the balcony, which also collapsed, injuring 20 other firefighters below. Twelve of the firefighters died immediately, and one succumbed to his injuries in the hospital.
The firefighters trapped inside had no idea of the fire's extent until it was too late. Outside, the flames roaring through the walls and ceiling were clearly visible. But to the firefighters inside, on the balcony, the flames were hidden. It later became clear that the flames were contained in a closed, 10-foot space between the ceiling and the roof. As they grew, the heat caused metal trusses to buckle, pushing out the brick wall and causing the roof to collapse.
The recovery of the victims was wrenching. Numbers on boots were one of the few ways to identify the dead. One man was identified by a watch he kept in his pocket. Crews from surrounding communities came to help. A priest was honored for his walk through the rubble to bless the injured in the twilight of the fire.
"It was a disaster for everyone," Burrell said.
A cause of the blaze was never determined. All that was known was that, earlier in the evening, patrons who had watched the last show, "Secret Evidence," a crime drama, had reported smelling smoke. Later, two custodians saw fire in the basement and pulled the box alarm, 1311, a block away on Main Street.
Today, the pattern of the fire serves as a lesson for fire attack plans. Modern technology allows firefighters to communicate, and use heat sensing devices to follow the fire's force. But back then, said Burrell, none of that existed.
"All they gave us was a helmet," said Burrell.
Despite the health problems that come with his age, and perhaps his profession, Burrell still attends Fire Chiefs' Association of Massachusetts meetings. And on Wednesday evenings he goes to the Brockton Fire Museum with friends to look at old pictures, and tell old stories to a new generation of firefighters.
And when talk turns to the tragedy of 1941, Burrell is the last one who can say, "I was there."
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at email@example.com.