My apologies that its been a while since we had a historical posting, but I'm happy to share today this wonderfully detailed research piece by Donna Neale- an enthusiast of the old Boston-based rock group The Cars. The story involves a massive Oak Square fire that I remember well from 1979- so without further ado, here's Donna's writings:
"As a huge fan of the 70s and 80s new wave rock band, The Cars, I’ve been trying to track down the Boston-area apartment fire that consumed the home of bass player Benjamin Orr four decades ago. I believe that the five-alarm fire at 101-103 Tremont early on the morning of December 9, 1979, may have been the one.
My digging for details led me to Charlie Vasiliades. Not only has he lived in the neighborhood of the fire for more than 60 years, but he has an incredible memory and a heart for history. He serves as the vice president of the Brighton Allston Historical Society, and is affectionately nicknamed the ‘mayor of Oak Square’ due to his longtime dedication to community activism. Charlie was instrumental in bringing this story to life.
Located on the west side of the district of Brighton is an upscale, hilly little neighborhood called Oak Square. It is conveniently located near several universities, and is less than a 20 minute drive from downtown Boston. The area boasts a quiet “village” feel amidst its pretty residential areas, while having easy access to all of the opportunities and conveniences of the big city.
Back in 1979, near the outskirts of Oak Square, two brick apartment buildings were nestled into a little wooded hillside on Tremont Avenue. The twin six-story complexes were owned by Joe Lombardi and were fairly new, having been constructed in 1973. Each building was made up of two wings joined with a central lobby/foyer area, and topped with tiers of penthouse apartments. One was addressed as 101-103 Tremont, the other as 109-111 Tremont. These Google images below show the front and top of present-day 109-111 Tremont, an exact duplicate of its sister complex that used to stand on its right.
Both buildings were fully occupied in 1979, providing homes for an estimated 300 people, including small families, elderly couples, college students, and business professionals. I believe that Benjamin Orr, bass player for The Cars, lived there, too.
Sunday, December 9, 1979.
Charlie Vasiliades was a young college student and a night owl by nature. He lived with his family in a house built into a hillside overlooking much of the Oak Square neighborhood. The view was beautiful, though sound tended to be amplified from the streets below. On this night, the temperature dipped below freezing and a light dusting of snow covered the ground as Charlie relaxed in front of the television.
Shortly after midnight Charlie began to hear sirens swelling and fading outside his home. Just one at first, which was not unusual, but soon another followed, and then several more in rapid succession. He stepped out on his porch where he could see down to the main street. Emergency vehicles were accumulating about three blocks west and down the hill from his house. The night sky was illuminated with an eerie orange glow and smoke billowing up into the dark. His ears were assaulted with a cacophony of sirens piercing the air for about a good hour. It was past 1 a.m. when he returned inside and made his way toward bed. As curious as he was, he knew he would only be in the way if he showed up on the scene.
The first tones had sounded at the fire station at 12:25 a.m. after a resident of 101 Tremont pulled the fire alarm in the laundry room, possibly on the second floor. Witnesses inside observed smoke coming from both the elevator shaft and the trash compactor room as they headed out of the building. Investigators later confirmed that the fire did indeed start in the 101 building in the trash compactor, though they could not determine what sparked it.
Many residents reported that there had been several minor fires and at least one false alarm in the complex in recent weeks, so when the fire alarm sounded in the middle of the night, they weren’t too worried. They shrugged on their jackets and hustled out of their apartments empty-handed, expecting to be allowed to return to their beds in short order. Several walked over to the lobby of 109 Tremont to keep warm while they waited to hear the ‘all clear.’ (A short time later, when that building was evacuated, they returned out into the street and were shocked by what they saw.)
A second alarm was struck at 12:46 a.m., a third at 12:57 a.m., a fourth at 1:05 a.m., and the fifth at 1:21 a.m. Trucks from Newton and other Boston firehouses raced to the scene to lend support. Bolstered by strong winds, the fire was fierce and all-consuming, relentlessly eating away the interior walls and blasting the glass out of windows. At the peak of the battle, 150 firefighters and over 40 emergency vehicles were working in tandem to defeat the flames.
It was wise of Charlie to stay put. The whole situation was a terrifying mess. Emergency responders were hindered by the hundreds of displaced residents, concerned neighbors, and curious spectators who clogged the area around the buildings even as police officers attempted to keep them out of the danger zone.
By around 2:15 a.m. the authorities believed the fire was under control, but suddenly a gush of flames bolted up the back of the building, broke through the roof, and began to devour 103 Tremont. Steel railings melted and the wall between the conjoined buildings collapsed. Flames shot out of the roof high into the night, scattering embers. In an attempt to keep the aggressive flames from grabbing other structures, neighbors were evacuated and firefighters hosed down the surrounding homes as well as Our Lady of the Presentation Church, which stood up on the hill behind the apartment complex. The Boston Globe reported that the heat was so intense it could be felt in the middle of the street. It took more than an hour to regain control.
Members of the American Red Cross were at the scene almost immediately, setting up a disaster shelter in the church to provide warm blankets, hot drinks, and comforting refuge throughout the long night. The fire was contained by 3:30 a.m., though firefighters would continue to work on extinguishing the blaze as the sun came up. Three days later some of the debris was still smoldering.
Charlie remembers seeing coverage of the disastrous fire on the morning news. “The footage showed practically every single window opening, as well as the roof, was pouring out orange flames. It was a very distinctive sight in my memory.”
The level of devastation hit home when he went outside. “I remember going out into my backyard. It was a clear, sunny day in December, kind of cold. I found big chunks of burnt out wallpaper and debris in the garden. It was really quite startling.”
Charlie got dressed and walked down to the fire site. The street was still teeming with onlookers, and fire trucks were everywhere. The blaze was out; the entire complex was destroyed. Describing what he saw, Charlie explained, “The building was kind of a ziggurat style, set back on the hill with three levels. To its immediate right there were public stairs that connected the street the fire was on to another major street up behind the site.
“You could see that it was literally a ruin,” he continued. “Except for the very front wings of the building, the entire structure had collapsed in on itself. The walls were standing, but the windows were just gaping holes into nothing. In the two front wings, I remember the top floor had burned. A couple of rooms on the bottom floor in the front arms had not burned, but that was about it. The firemen were still pouring water into the building. It was quite a scene.”
It is incredible that in the middle of such a powerful disaster, there were no casualties and no critical injuries. Many residents were rescued from the building using aerial ladders. At least 40 residents were treated on the scene for exposure, cuts, bruises, and smoke inhalation. More than 20 people, including nine firefighters, were transported to a nearby hospital for further care. But everyone got out alive and burn-free. Overall, a wide ribbon of gratefulness wove its way through the shock of the night.
Still, the aftermath brought a different kind of devastation: over 140 people were left without their homes, their treasured possessions, and the common necessities for everyday living. People lost everything in those apartments. Every. single. thing. Furniture, clothing, photographs, money, medications, legal documents. Grief and fear threatened to overtake many of the victims as they considered their irreplaceable belongings and the prospect of finding a new home in the middle of a citywide housing shortage.
But they weren’t left on their own. Over the next several days Red Cross volunteers worked tirelessly to meet the victims’ immediate basic needs: a place to stay and food to eat, vital medications, clothing vouchers, and guidance for the first critical steps necessary to start over again. In addition, the community banded together to find ways to help:
The owner of the destroyed complex joined in the search for long-term housing solutions, too, making it a priority to take care of his former residents.
A neighboring superintendent set up a Brighton Fire Victims Fund at a local bank to field monetary donations. The balance of approximately $2,500 was evenly distributed among victims after February 28, 1980.
In January of 1980, the Brighton-Allston Clergy Association announced it would be holding a “Fire Dance” benefit and buffet to raise funds for those still without a permanent home. The successful event brought in over $4,000, and was used to purchase appliances, furniture, and other staples for the families.
A tangible sense of love and support blanketed the victims of the fire. One resident felt that the disaster may have been “a gift from God” because it forced people to get to connect. He was quoted in the Allston Brighton Citizen Item as saying, “Previously we were all strangers but as a result of the fire we found out that they weren’t strangers, but friends I hadn’t met.”
1940_photoAnd then life went on. In February of 1980, investigators ruled the fire was accidental, and commended the firefighters on the scene for doing an excellent job battling the conflagration.
The site of 101-103 Tremont was eventually demolished, cleared out, and left vacant for nearly forty years. Finally, in 2016, developers broke ground on the lot and began construction of a new housing facility called 99 Tremont. Similar to the original structure, this complex included 62 living units, but it was also fitted with all sorts of special amenities, like a fitness center, game room, and lounge. These luxury apartments and condos became available in the spring of 2017."
Thanks so much,
Public Relations Coordinator: www.benorrbook.com
Co-host, NiGHT THOUGHTS: The Cars Podcast