A day after the flames thwarted his efforts to save Lt. Edward J. Walsh and firefighter Michael R. Kennedy in the basement of a blazing Beacon Street brownstone, Capt. Neal Mullane of Ladder 18 in South Boston, his own scalp gashed and burned, found himself drawn to the Back Bay firehouse that has become a kind of chapel for his grieving brethren.
Mullane, 42, was one of the officers tapped at a moment’s notice to command as the Rapid Intervention Team at the nine-alarm fire. He described the desperate detail to the Herald’s Laurel J. Sweet.
“We were on our way to the fire when the first mayday hit — maybe Harrison Avenue and Washington Street. I just told my guys, ‘Listen to the radio. Get all the information you can while we’re responding.’ And everyone else was, too. Company after company just striking alarm after alarm to get all the help there they can. The guys were heroic. They really were.
“The RIT team’s job is they send 10 guys right off the bat — two officers and eight firefighters as a rescue for our own guys. That’s a safety measure they put in place. We have an extra 10 guys going dedicated to getting our own guys out. My guys were heroic. Unbelievable. And then there was a backdraft and about 10 of us got blown down the stairs and after that the chief said, ‘That’s it. No one else is going in.’ That was it, literally. Explosion blew us down the stairs.
“We knew it was bad. They were asking for help. They were pretty calm and composed. They were asking for help. … There was plenty of help there. It was just a matter of getting to them.
“The fire was horrific. Horrific conditions. I never felt anything like that in 20 years on the job. It was just a nasty, hot, rotten fire. You couldn’t see anything. Visibility zero. Heat was tremendous. It was just blowing up the stairs at us, blowing across the ceiling. When we were hitting the fire, the seat of the fire was still 30, 40 feet away. We couldn’t get to it. We couldn’t get to it.
“My orders were to grab a line, a hose line, and get in there and push as far as you can.
“We were trying to get down to the basement from the first floor. We just got beat. The fire beat us.
“They were pulling us out of the building because they would see what I couldn’t, which was the smoke was really starting to push out under pressure. They were calling us out just as it blew and a bunch of us just went flying through the air and landed at the bottom of the stairs. I got burned and banged up, but I was very lucky.”
Mullane said the thought that he might also die never crossed his mind.
“You don’t think that. We just do what we’re told, you know? We just do what we’re told. The bosses know. They’re very good. There’s hundreds of years of experience standing outside that fire in charge. They’d never seen anything like it from what they said.
“Wind. It was a wind-driven fire. No question. It was like a blowtorch.”