Author(s): Mary Elizabeth Woodruff. Published on January 4, 2016.

Boston Tragedy

The 1972 Hotel Vendome fire and collapse.
BY MARY ELIZABETH WOODRUFF

THE HOTEL VENDOME was the height of Gilded-Age opulence in Boston. On June 17, 1972, it was the scene of a fire and partial building collapse that killed nine firefighters and injured eight, one of the worst losses ever suffered by the Boston Fire Department.

The hotel opened in the city’s fashionable Back Bay area in 1872 and quickly became one of the city’s leading symbols of wealth and luxury. Hotel guests and temporary residents included luminaries such as Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Presidents Ulysses Grant and Grover Cleveland, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Thomas Edison visited in 1882 when the hotel became the first to install electric lights. 

Almost a century later, after a period of decline, the hotel was closed and undergoing extensive renovations. Future plans included shops and restaurants on the ground floor, with apartments above. The only portion of the building open to the public was a café on the ground floor. 

Sometime before 2:30 p.m. on June 17, smoke was observed by a worker performing renovations. When he climbed the stairs to investigate, he encountered heavy smoke and hastily retreated. The box alarm was sounded at 2:35 p.m. Almost simultaneously, the fire department received a call from an employee of the café reporting a fire. At the time of the fire, the workmen performing renovations and the patrons of a ground floor café were the only occupants in the building. All occupants safely exited. 

Within minutes, three engine companies and two ladder companies responded. As the fire progressed through the building, a total of four alarms were sounded. By approximately 5 p.m., the fire had been knocked down and firefighters were performing overhaul operations. 

At about 5:20 p.m., with as many as 20 firefighters on the upper floors of the building, a partial collapse occurred in the rear portion of the structure. Witnesses outside reported hearing a loud noise and seeing an exterior wall bulge, but firefighters who survived the collapse reported no advance warning. Survivors felt the floors they were standing on fall, and rode them down like descending elevators. 

The collapse trapped 17 firefighters in a pile of debris nearly two stories high. In the first hour, four firefighters were rescued, and eventually four more were freed from the rubble. Firefighters worked through the night to recover the bodies of the nine remaining men who died in the collapse.

City authorities launched investigations into the fire and collapse and hired structural engineering firms to report their findings. Although the source of the fire was never identified, it was determined that the renovations caused excessive stresses on a bearing wall, among other factors, which were enough to trigger the collapse.

In 1997, a memorial honoring those who died was dedicated near the site of the hotel. The memorial includes a bronze ax, helmet, and coat of a fallen firefighter, with the names of the victims etched on black granite panels.

MARY ELIZABETH WOODRUFF is manager of library and information resources at NFPA.
Top Photograph: FRANK WING/via The Boston Globe/Getty Images