Beverly, MA Deadly Rooming House Fire, July 1984



Beverly, Mass. -- A predawn fire raced through an turn-of-the-century rooming house on Wednesday, killing at least 14 people among the poor, retarded and former mental patients who lived there.
Two people were missing and 13 others were injured in the worst fire in Massachusetts in 25 years, fire officials said.
The fire chief said the 80-year-old brick and wood structure was "built to burn."
"There were flames coming out the windows, heavy smoke, people were hanging out and yelling for help," Fire Chief DEAN PALMER said of the scene in the south end of this city 25 miles north of Boston.
PALMER said several people jumped from windows or were rescued with ladders. One man was dead on arrival at Beverly Hospital from injuries he suffered in a fall from a top-floor window.
At least 13 people, including a fire-fighter and a police officer, were taken to hospitals in the area. Seven were admitted, one in critical condition, and six were treated and released.
"This is the worst fire in terms of loss of human life that has ever occured in almost 350 years in Beverly, and the worst fire in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 25 years," said Mayor F. J. MONOHAN at a news conference.
MONAHAN said the fire spread so quickly that six victims were found burned to death in their beds.
He said the building was in full compliance with rergulations, but vowed to find out why the fatal fire occured, calling for an investigation of state fire, building and safety codes.
Medical Examiner RUSSELL J. ROWELL confirmed that 14 were dead.
Red Cross worker VIRGINIA CLARIZIA said there were 36 people in the building at the time of the fire -- 33 residents and three visitors. After an eight-hour search, suthorities accounted for 20 people, besides the dead, leaving the whereabouts of two still unknown.
Names of most of the victims were withheld pending notification of relatives, but the mayor said the victims include rooming house manager HATTY WHARY and her two grandsons, aged 10 and 20, whose names were not available.
JAMES PUNCHARD, 42, a janitor who had lived in the 80-year-old Elliott Chambers building for four months, said he heard the fire alarm shortly after the blaze broke out at 4:14 a.m.
When he opened his door, PUNCHARD said, "it was like opening the door to a wood stove. All I had on was a pair of skivvies, I mean I didn't have time to get any .... my hair started to singe, burn. I just ran."
"Everyone knew that place was ready to go," said PUNCHARD, adding that he was "forced to live there. When you're making $7,000 a year you can't spend a lot on an apartment."
PALMER said the building, which housed shops on the ground floor and apartments on the upper two, had no sprinkler system, but had a new fire alarm and "met minimum emergency standards."
"It's an old wooden building," he said. "It was built to burn."
He said the cause of the blaze was unknown, but he believed it started in the front stairway, trapping people inside.
The rooming house catered to low-income tenants, retarded people and former mental patients, according to PALMER and other officials.
Maj. DAISY TICEHURST at the Salvation Army chapter across from the rooming house said "a lot of people came in here for food, clothing and counseling. A lot of them didn't have any family. Their only friends were the Salvation Army. They had no other place to go. You wouldn't live there if you had another place to go."

Daily Herald Chicago 1984-07-05