Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on March 4, 2014.

EDWARD BURRELL died on January 15, 2014. He was 99 years old and the last surviving member of the firefighting crew that responded to the Strand Theatre fire in Brockton, Massachusetts, on March 10, 1941. Burrell narrowly avoided disaster: 13 firefighters died when the building’s roof collapsed, making it one of the deadliest fires in U.S. history in terms of firefighter deaths.

The fire was discovered by janitors about an hour after the theatre closed for the night, and the first alarm was sounded at 12:45 a.m. Arriving firefighters discovered that the blaze had already spread throughout the building and sounded a general alarm that brought the entire Brockton Fire Department to the scene, according to the investigation report published in the Quarterly of the National Fire Protection Association in April 1941. The investigation found that the fire had spread from the basement to the roof through voids in the walls and ceilings.

Fire crews seemed to be making progress when the roof over the balcony suddenly collapsed, trapping several companies that had been using the balcony to fight the fire at the roof. Harry Sherburne, a Boston Globe reporter who was inside the building at the time, heard “a roar of crashing timber and . . . saw the entire ceiling over the balcony come thundering down. The men didn’t have even an outside chance of escape. They were pinned beneath the wreckage.”

According to the NFPA report, the fire increased in intensity after the collapse, making rescue efforts difficult. The balcony held, though, and the firefighters were pulled from the debris. Most of them had died instantly, although one survived long enough to make it to the hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries. In addition to the 13 fatalities, 17 other firefighters were injured.

Burrell, then 26 years old, had been waiting to climb down to the theater’s roof from an adjacent building when the collapse occurred. In an interview with The Brockton Enterprise decades later, he said it was “just an act of God” that he was spared. 

Burrell was with the Brockton Fire Department for 40 years, eventually taking over as chief in 1963, a position he held for 16 years. He died at his home, surrounded by his family, six months shy of his 100th birthday.

— Kathleen Robinson