This page tells the story of the Orient Heights Yacht Club Fire of April 8, 2000, during which a wind-driven 9-alarm fire destroyed an historic yacht club and threatened to consume an entire neighborhood of Boston, MA. The Boston Fire Department overcame a multitude of problems to prevent what could have been a conflagration.
This story is told through the eyes of a first-responder to the scene, District Fire Chief David R. Mager, who was the district chief of District 1 (East Boston) on the day of the fire. A complete Narrative with supporting documentation is available at this link.
On a pleasant early spring day in Boston, a breezy day turned very windy when southwesterly winds increased in velocity in the late morning hours. In East Boston, the Orient Heights Yacht Club (OHYC) faced southwest from its perch on Bayswater Street, along an inlet of Boston Harbor that skirted around the runways and taxiways of Logan International Airport.
Members of the yacht club were both inside socializing and outside the club building working on the early stages of preparing the stored boats for the upcoming summer season.
The OHYC clubhouse building was built in 1901, a 2-1/2 story wood-frame building, 50ft x 70ft, with the front of the building abutting the seawall and the rear of the building extending over the water, supported by pilings and heavy timbers. Outside of the building 80 wood lockers extended out toward the boat docks, which extended out another 300 feet from the shore.
East Boston is geographically isolated from the remainder of Boston and is nearly surrounded by water. Three fire stations are located in East Boston, within which are quartered three engine companies, two ladder companies and one district chief. When a full first-alarm assignment is struck in East Boston, automatic coverage of East Boston is provided by an engine and ladder from Downtown Boston and one engine from the city of Chelsea, just to the north of East Boston. The covering companies must enter East Boston from either a tunnel or bridge. When a large fire occurs in East Boston, getting additional responding fire companies quickly to the scene is of paramount importance.
In mid-afternoon, several members inside the clubhouse smelled smoke coming from outside the building. Some thought it was smoke from an aircraft on the ground at Logan Airport, just a short distance away. When the smoke persisted, the club members investigated and found smoke rising up from beneath the building. While they tried to extinguish the fire, a call was placed to 911 at 1546 hours.
View a video of interviews with witnesses and others.
At 1547 hours, Box 6262, Bayswater and Thurston Streets, was struck for the fire at the OHYC. Responding to the Box were Engines 56, 5 & 9, Ladders 21 & 2, and District Chief 1. Upon arrival, Fire Captain Steven Waldron of Engine 56 found heavy smoke and fire showing and ordered at Second Alarm at 1550 hours.
District Chief Mager arrived on the scene and transmitted a 3rd Alarm at 1555 hours. The clubhouse building was now nearly fully-involved and large chunks of firebrands were being carried aloft by the persistent strong winds and were raining down on and around the residential structures across Bayswater Street and adjoining streets. Additionally, 28 boats wrapped in combustible plastic shrink-wrap were stored in an adjacent 60ft x 60ft storage yard to the northwest side of the building. The Division 1 chief, Deputy Fire Chief John Hasson, arrived at 1558 hours. The operation was now clearly a defensive action. At 1607 hours the residential structure at #54 Bayswater caught on fire. Chief Hasson ordered a 4th Alarm at 1608 hours. Chief of Department Paul Christian arrived at 1609 hours. At 1611 hours, Chief Christian ordered a 7th Alarm, followed by the 8th Alarm at 1614 and the 9th Alarm at 1623. At this time, the houses at #52 and #60 Bayswater Street were on fire. A command decision was made to have a District Chief in charge of each of the separate structures and to use separate fireground radio channels for each operation.
The difficulty of getting water on the clubhouse from handlines operated from either side of the clubhouse were exacerbated by the high winds which knocked down streams and from the unstable status of the boats on fire in the storage yard. Water pressure in the area became a concern with the number of engines pumping from the 8-inch water main in the area.
Several Special Calls were issued. Due the difficulty of extinguishing the boat fires with water, a foam-unit crash fire engine was sent by MassPort Fire/Rescue, equipped with 3000 gallons of foam. Due to the difficulty of getting normal-draft fireboats in close to shore, the U.S. Coast Guard sent a shallow-draft boat, equipped with a fire pump and nozzle.
Handling the fires in the #52, #54 & #60 Bayswater Street and firebrand patrols handling small fires in the Saratoga St, St. Andrew Rd. and St. Edward Rd. was ongoing at this time. Foam lines were operating in the boatyard area. At its zenith, the firefighting effort involved 235 firefighters, 29 engine companies, 15 ladder companies, 26 other units, 18 2-1/2 inch lines, 11 1-3/4 inch lines, 3 master streams and 4 foam handlines.
When the fire was knocked down, at 1728 hours, the toll of lost and damaged buildings and boats was significant. The clubhouse was destroyed. Fifteen boats stored in the boatyard were lost, the largest being a 42ft boat. Major damage was suffered by 3 residential buildings. Many other buildings suffered minor roof damage or damage to sidings. The total damage estimate was $2.5 million dollars. The cause was apparently an electrical short-circuit in equipment located under the clubhouse. The All-Out was transmitted at 0629 hours the next day, April 9, 2000.
In the words of Chief of Department Paul Christian, “This was one of the most difficult and toughest fires we’ve had in Boston.”
CREDITS, SOURCES & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Boston Fire Department
Fire Fighter Michael King, Fire Investigation Unit, BFD
Fire Fighter Steve MacDonald, Tower Ladder Company 10, BFD
Video Production and Editing
Nat Whittemore, WBZ-TV
Video Courtesy Of
Captain James McLaughlin (ret.), Winthrop Fire Department
Fire Fighter William Miller, Ladder Company 24, BFD
Fire Fighter Felix Turley, Fire Investigation Unit, BFD
Don Harney, freelance photographer, East Boston