Boston mourning turns into GRFD safety lesson

The remains after a fire in a four-story brownstone in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood (Photo courtesy Grand Rapids Firefighters Local 366).

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After marching with 10,000 other firefighters from across the country, eight men from the Grand Rapids Fire Department wanted to see for themselves where the Boston firefighters died.

Boston Fire Department Lt. Edward Walsh and firefighter Michael Kennedy died March 26. They had been battling a blaze at a brownstone apartment building in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.

“When you go there, it’s very somber. Very sobering,” said Grand Rapids Firefighters Local 366 President Joe Dubay, one of the eight Grand Rapids firefighters who made the 14-hour drive to Boston for the funerals.

Some Grand Rapids firefighters traveled to Boston to attend the funeral of two firefighters (Photo courtesy Grand Rapids Firefighters Local 366)
(Grand Rapids firefighters traveled to Boston to attend the funeral of two firefighters Photo courtesy Grand Rapids Firefighters Local 366)

At the brownstone, they found men and woman who had little time to mourn. Boston fire  investigators were trying to get answers as to why those two firefighters died.

It is rare that outsiders would get an inside look at such an investigation, but that’s what happened next.

“They called us up to the scene, invited us to take any pictures we needed, ask any questions. And their statement was, ‘we don’t want this to happen to you,'” Dubay said.

The type of buildings and the windy weather conditions that Boston firefighters faced March 26 were the kind of conditions firefighters face anywhere — including Grand Rapids.

For example, the fire that tore through the old Kindel Furniture factory in Grand Rapids on May 9, 2011 was similar. Winds were brisk that day, actually helping keep the fire from spreading. But a slight change in direction could have had the opposite effect.

The Boston fire is a reminder of how quick circumstances can change.

“You might not think that a little breeze can do a whole lot. But with a large volume of fire and infinite amount of wind, it works against you very fast, can cause a fire to build very fast,” Dubay said. “Being right out there and seeing that, that perspective of a four-story building completely gutted. It sent us back with some sobering thoughts.”

The eight GRFD members brought their discussion with Boston investigators back home, discussing the factors involved in the fire with our local firefighters in an effort to learn from the tragedy.

There’s much more information to come. While investigators know the conditions that help drive the fire, they don’t know why the two firefighters weren’t able to escape. But they have some clues to why the tragedy happened. They’ll share it with their bosses and a committee that focuses on firefighter safety.

It’s all part of the effort to avoid another firefighter funeral.

“While we went out there to honor our brothers, we came back with a fare amount of information that we can hopefully use with our members,” Dubay said.

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