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How they fought the Lynn fire

Firefighters rested after battling a Lynn fire for hours.
Firefighters rested after battling a Lynn fire for hours. (Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)

Conflagration: "A large, disastrous fire" - Webster.

The first conflagration recorded in North America was in Boston in 1654, and the residents hurled bucket after bucket of water at the flames. The fire wiped out much of the 24-year-old town.

Last weekend a conflagration occurred in Lynn, a city 12 miles north of Boston, and though most things have changed since 1654, the basic way to fight a fire really hasn't.

As one fire chief put it, "Technology has advanced to the point where we can put men on the moon and get them back but no one has yet found a substitute for water and manpower when it comes to fighting a big fire."

Water is used to put out fire because water cools heat and heat is one of the three elements required to have fire. The other two are oxygen and fuel. Remove any one of the three elements, and you put out the fire.

While motor-driven pumping engines and high-pressure water systems and hoses were developed to replace the old fire bucket, no one has yet developed a substitute for water as a prime extinguisher of big fires.

Neither has anyone been able to stop a fire from becoming a conflagration when all the pieces are right, even though they now know how.It may happen elsewhere.

What happened in Lynn last week could happen again today, particularly in any of the older industrial communities of the country, according to the nation's fire technologists. The textbooks of the fire scientists and history detail hundreds of such fires.

Last year there were 323 large property loss fires in the United States that caused nearly $1 billion in property damage. There were 2.9 million fires of all degrees of severity that caused a total property loss of $6.25 billion, according to the National Fire Protection Assn., with headquarters in Quincy.

What Fire Chief Joseph E. Scanlon Jr. faced in Lynn last Saturday morning was basically nothing new or different from what hundreds of other fire chiefs in the United States and Canada have had to cope with since 1654.

The Lynn conflagration followed a formula for destruction that has been recorded at hundreds of similar conflagrations in North America.

Look at the scene just before the fire. Three-, five- and eight-story brick factory buildings, with wooden framed, unprotected glass windows lining every floor on all sides. Tar-and-gravel flat roofs, the buildings all close together, their interiors impregnated with oils left from the heyday of the shoe manufacturing era and protected from fire only by old and inadequate sprinkler systems.Waves of heat

What happens when a fire gets going in such an area?

Lynn District Fire Chiefs Paul Kirby and Alcide LeBlanc were the first to arrive at the scene. They later reported they had a fire in a partially demolished, vacant five-story factory building on Broad street that was burning fiercely and generating waves of heat.

The flames were already beyond the reach of the first hose lines and the burning building was near two other buildings (the second element, fuel).

The night temperatures were in the high 30s with a 20 mph wind (the third element, oxygen) from the south-southwest.

With firemen unable to get enough water to bear on the initial flames to cool them down, the fire quickly generated temperatures high enough to radiate heat that ignited the old and dry wooden window frames of the two adjacent buildings.

In seconds, the window glass of the adjacent buildings broke, allowing the heat from the initial fire to pass into the interior of the buildings, where it ignited paper, wood and any other combustible that catches fire easily.

Window glass has a low resistance to heat.

Sprinkler systems were rendered useless in minutes, investigators said later, because they could not supply enough water to feed the dozens of sprinkler heads that probably opened almost simultaneously on every floor.Water cannon used

All of this happened in the first few minutes as the two district chiefs barked orders to engine companies at the front of the building to hook up their pumpers to hydrants and use the big deck guns or water cannon mounted on the hose wagons.

This was the quickest way to bring a large amount of water to bear on the fire. If it works, the fire dies. It didn't.

District Chief Kirby knew there were not enough men or equipment answering the first alarm to handle the fire and he ordered second and third alarms to call in more engines and ladders from other Lynn fire stations. He called Chief Scanlon out of his bed at home.

When the chief arrived at the scene 15 minutes later, all of the elements of a conflagration were at work. Now the fire was creating its own wind (another phenomenon of a conflagration), and big chunks of flaming wood were being whipped up into the now superheated air along with a huge shower of sparks.

Chief Scanlon radioed a general alarm that brought in all of Lynn's equipment along with help from Nahant, Swampscott, Saugus, Lynnfield, Salem, Peabody and Revere.

Soon the fire was out of control. There was no way, at this stage, that enough water could be played on the fire to cool it. There was no way to remove the fuel short of dynamiting whole city blocks and there would be no time for that. And smothering the blaze to remove the oxygen was never a possibility. That form of suppression is generally reserved for gas and fuel fires.The chief's vital decisions

The fire chief's knowledge of firefighting techniques, his city, its water supply capability, and his ability to use it and the manpower and modern-day fire equipment to its maximum would now be put to the test. The outcome of the fire would be determined by his actions of the next few hours, and he knew it. By radio he alerted area fire control centers in Newton, Beverly and Randolph that a conflagration was in progress moving from the Lynnway in a northerly direction roughly along Broad street toward Exchange street.

Taking full advantage of one of the best fire mutual aid and radio systems in the country, Scanlon directed incoming apparatus to the north and west sides of the fire to set up a perimeter.

Less than an hour had passed before the mortar holding the bricks in the factory building together started to disintegrate from the heat. Bricks began falling, followed in seconds by the walls themselves as the huge floor beams tore from their joists and crashed in a roar to the street.

A battle line was set up on Washington street to try to confine the fire to the three eight-story and five smaller buildings already ablaze and collapsing.

Chief Scanlon, looking much like a beleaguered army general, dropped back with his men, regrouping his forces on Washington street, where he was now being joined by chiefs of neighboring fire departments.

The reinforcements were on their way from 90 or more communities in eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. They were moving toward Lynn under a plan that area fire chiefs had devised for just such a circumstance, a plan born out of previous conflagrations.

Suddenly the roof of the 12-story Leisure Tower building began to smolder. It was nearly three blocks away from the main fire. Then the window frames of the Benson Shoe Co., two blocks away up Farrar street, began to ignite. The eastern perimeter chiefs moved to stave off the new tack of the fire.

The fire had jumped over the battle line on Washington street.A fighting withdrawal

Retreat some more. Move the apparatus before it is trapped. Get the men out of there before the walls come down on them again. Move the hose lines. Fall back to the secondary defense. So went the orders from Chief Scanlon. His deputy chiefs scurried through the thick smoke and heat to deliver his instructions to other chiefs and thence to the company officers.

The chiefs on the east front ordered the Leisure building evacuated quickly. The residents were all elderly people who were probably very frightened, but they had to get out of there. There was no telling at that point if the roof fires could be controlled.

More trouble. The huge Vamp building was on fire. It was the model of Lynn's revitalization. It had just been remodeled and was occupied.

Pumpers were hooked to hydrants and lines plugged into the building's sprinkler system. Evacuation was under way.

Dozens of masked firefighters moved into the structure and worked their way to the top floor where they pulled down ceilings trying to stop the blaze spreading across the unprotected cockloft of the structure. Other firefighters hauled hose over aerial ladders to the roof from Liberty Square on the south side of the fire.

It was already mid-morning, and in the light of day it became easier to see where the fire was, where it had been and where it was going.

Still another Cambridge fire company, the seventh engine sent by that city, arrived and, directed by mutual aid radio, went to the north side of the fire where firefighters found a water main that was yet untapped. They stretched a big five-inch hose down to Exchange street. That brought enough water to make a stand.

Ten aerial guns and a dozen hand lines were set up and fired at the wall of flame as the sides of the eight-story Benson Shoe Co. gave way.

Ever so slowly, the heat began to lessen, the flames began to falter, black smoke started to turn white, firebrands stopped flying and the waves of sparks and smoke began to die down. The secondary defense had held. It was now 10 a.m. Saturday. The forward advance of fire had been stopped by a rubber- coated line of men and water.

The rest is history. The top floor of the Vamp building was lost, but the rest of the huge building saved and it will be back in business again.

The Leisure Tower building was saved as was the Harborloft One apartment building on Washington street, another converted shoe factory that was actually surrounded by fire at one point. But it now had metal window frames, its wooden roof parts and the tar and gravel roof had been covered with metal - all of which contributed to keeping it from falling victim to sparks and radiated heat.

 Day of the fire storm in Lynn (Boston Globe, 11/29/81)
 List of injured in Lynn fire (Boston Globe, 11/29/81)
 Federal aid tight, senators tell Lynn (Boston Globe, 12/1/81)
 JEREMIAH MURPHY: A tough old city (Boston Globe, 12/1/81)
 How they fought the Lynn fire (Boston Globe, 12/4/81)
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