Dec 01, 1992
Firefighters’ heroic effort in blaze that claimed 3 – Boston Globe

“I was driving the chief,” Walter Cobe was saying. “We got there just as Engine 48 pulled up. It was maybe three or four minutes after the alarm was sounded. I jumped out of the car and one of the people standing outside said there was kids still inside so I went right up the ladder.”


Firefighters’ heroic effort in blaze that claimed 3


Walter Cobe is 53 years old. He is a firefighter. Saturday afternoon, he was driving Jack Brennan, a deputy fire chief, when flames and smoke swallowed a house on River Street between Mattapan and Hyde Park and killed three children. This is his story:

“I got to the third floor, the attic, and I saw the house had thermopane windows, replacement windows, and I said to myself, `This is going to be a bitch.’ Replacement windows are thick and they hold all the heat in.

“I wasn’t wearing my helmet and facepiece. Just a mask. Air mask, and I had to take that off to get inside the attic because the window was so narrow.

“I got in and dropped to the floor right away. The smoke was tremendous. The visibility was maybe 6 inches. I put my unit back on and went to the wall. You stay close to the wall. You crawl on the floor on your hands and knees along the wall and feel for an opening. Maybe it’s a closet. Maybe it’s a bedroom. If you go in and feel clothes hanging, you know it’s a closet. You want to be able to get back out. You think of that. You don’t have a string attached to your back, you know.

“I met Tommy Blake inside. He’s from Ladder 16. He had come up the stairs. He was on the floor with me. It was like crawling down the lane of a bowling alley because I didn’t know if we’d ever get to the end. I said to Tommy, `Follow me.’

“I felt a bed and I turned my light on. The light is attached to your coat. Tommy and me, we felt on top of the mattress to see if any kids were on the bed. Sometimes kids go to the bed, hide under it because they think they’ll be safe, but there was only clothes and blankets on it.

“I said to Tommy, `We gotta get the mattress off. Help me flip it.’ We flipped it over. We couldn’t see anything at all, the visibility was so bad.

“I took my facepiece off so I could see better and felt the floor under the bed. I felt a hand and I said, `Tommy. I’ve got something here.’ At first I thought it was a woman, but it was two little children. They had been hugging each other, holding on to each other. I said, `Tommy. This is a kid.’

“Tommy got the hands and I took the feet. I said, `Tommy, can you handle the baby?’ and he said he could. He grabbed the child and went to the window where {Ladder Company} 28 had thrown up a 35-foot ladder. Tommy was doing mouth-to-mouth, then he handed the baby to Hansy, Hansy Rigueur. He’s Haitian. He was at the top of the ladder.

“Tommy’s air had run out. They say you have 15 minutes in a bottle but when you set your mask to `Purge’ and you’re really working, the air can go in five minutes. You know it because the vibra-alert in the mask goes off. You can feel it and hear it.

“When Tommy went to the window, I felt around some more and I felt a foot, a small one, then a little leg. I shined the light on it and I saw it was one of the boys. I still had my mask off and I was starting to get woozy. My oxygen had run out.

“I picked him up, stood up and went for the wall because I knew there was a stairway out there somewhere and I wanted to save the boy. Bobby Driscoll was still in the room. He’s from the Tower Unit. He kept on looking. You have to keep looking.

“There was a crib, a bed, some clothes piled up in the corner. That’s about all, but you have to go through everything. I carried the boy on my shoulders and started for the stairs. I felt this was the quickest way out, back down through the fire. Vern McEachern from Engine 53 was on the stairs and I said, `Vern. I’ve got a baby here.’

“Vern took his mask off and gave it to me. He grabbed me by the front of my coat and he started yelling, `Move out. Move out. We got a kid. We’re coming down.’ He never let go of my coat. I said, `Vern. Take the kid. I’m losing it. I don’t want to drop the kid.’ Vern pulled me down the steps and made sure we didn’t trip on any of the hoses or anything.

“We got outside and I gave the boy to the EMTs. Right after I came out, a policeman came running by me holding the boy Bobby Driscoll found. I think the policeman was either Mike Linskey or Kevin Welsh. They did a tremendous job.

“The boy was 4 feet from the other two kids. I think one of the boys took his sister out of the crib and dragged her under the bed. But you couldn’t see, the smoke was so thick. I feel badly they died. God knows, we tried to save them.

“Outside, I got treated for the smoke. The EMTs gave me some air. I laid down on a stretcher for five minutes. Then I got up and went back in, went back to work.”

According to the Fire Department, the fire was sparked by crudely installed illegal wiring in the basement where there was an illegal apartment. There was no smoke detector in the cellar. None could be found in the first-floor kitchen. The second-floor detector had dead batteries and did not work. On the third floor — the attic where the children lived — the detector functioned, but two boys, 5 and 2, died along with their sister who was 7. Twenty-seven people had been living in the house. The record shows the Boston Fire Department responded in less than four minutes.

Harold Brown, 73, was walking up River Street with his two great-grandchildren Saturday afternoon when he saw the first truck arrive from Cleary Square. Yesterday, he said: “I saw one fireman jump off the truck when it was still rolling to a stop. He didn’t even have his coat on yet, but he ran up and crashed right through the door into the fire because people were yelling kids were inside. I was in awe. I have never seen such bravery in all my life.”

Walter Cobe, 53, has been on the job 21 years. Saturday, with no questions asked and not a moment’s hesitation, he was one of many who crawled through thick smoke and fire, on hands and knees, without air, looking for lost children. Last week, his take-home pay after deductions was $377.