Skip to content

The day the sky turned black

Oct. 14, 1973 — Was this a volcano? A monstrous black cloud throbbed across the sky from the general direction of Boston. You could see it from Sturbridge, so you could certainly see it from Burlington. Nothing scary is supposed to happen on a Sunday afternoon, but this was very scary indeed.

Steve Duke from Central Avenue, Burlington, was captain of the town’s Civil Defense/Auxiliary Fire Department. He got an urgent call. The firefighters on the front lines of the inferno needed lights because the sun was getting low and would soon vanish. Duke ascended Winnmere Hill to retrieve the lighting truck — and snapped this picture while he was up there.

Chelsea Fire from Winnmere Hill, Burlington (Steve Duke photo)
The black cloud as seen from Winnmere Hill, the one behind Sullivan Funeral Home.
Burlington's Civil Defense lighting unit, a 1965 Dodge with a 35kW diesel generator
Burlington’s Civil Defense lighting unit, a 1965 Dodge with a 35kW diesel generator. Steve Duke photos

Sixty-six other towns responded too. That’s about a fifth of all fire departments in Massachusetts, plus a few from New Hampshire, all racing toward the black cloud rising from Chelsea. “We had no GPS, no cell phones, no two-way radio communication with Chelsea,” Duke recalls. “Just a map book of eastern Massachusetts. The entire ride down Route 93 and then Route 16, was a convoy of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles from all over. It looked like a fast-moving parade.

“As I stepped off the truck to locate the Chelsea deputy chief, TV reporter Steve Shepard and his cameraman stuck a microphone in my face and started asking questions about the fire. How many trucks? How many firefighters? How many buildings involved?

“How the hell do I know?” I thought to myself. “I just got here.”

Chelsea was on fire. We’re talking hundreds of buildings covering 20 blocks, about a quarter of the city. Everyone knew this day would come because it had happened before. The city had suffered a huge fire in 1908 and an endless string of small ones. Just eight months before this 1973 fire, the National Board of Fire Underwriters said Chelsea had “the highest potential for conflagration of any city in the USA.” 

Fire codes? Chelsea had waived them decades earlier to lure industry away from Boston. See, Boston had become vigilant about building codes after its own horrendous fire in 1872. So Chelsea was an unrestricted alternative for grimy industries since the turn of the century. The city was prepping for an “urban renewal” project. Well, some say this fire simply got the job done faster.

The fire started on a windy and warm afternoon at 4 p.m. in Chelsea’s sprawling “Rag Shop District,” a slapdash colony of:

  • Metal salvage yards where sparks flew constantly as metal was cut up
  • Paper and cloth salvage yards operating in rickety wooden warehouses stuffed to the roof with flammable flotsam and jetsam

Those warehouses literally exploded into huge fireballs, each one igniting the next one by sheer convection. The fire became so big and hot, it created its own weather system that pulled surface air from the ocean like a huge vacuum cleaner, battering firemen with 100-mph gusts and scattering flaming debris in every direction to start new fires. You think the fire is in front of you? No, that’s old news from two minutes ago. It’s been sailing over your head in little bits. Now it’s beside you and behind you. Burlington’s fire trucks had their paint burned off and their filters so clogged with soot, so they could not be restarted when they got home, according to fire dept. veteran Jim Fay.

Some stats:

  • 300 buildings across 20 city blocks skeletonized in two hours
  • 1100 homeless
  • 800 jobless
  • Zero deaths or serious injuries (a miracle by all accounts)
  • Three days to completely stop the fire

“I have to say,” says Duke, “I was in total awe of the scene in front of me. It reminded me of pictures from the London blitz during WW2. I’ve never seen anything like it since. Buildings of every description, and as far as you could see through the smoke, fully engulfed in fire. Some already collapsed, some about to fall. The fire was spreading unabated despite attempts to control it. The blast of heat was incredible, and the smoke very thick.”

“Around 4 a.m., word came that the Army National Guard had set up a mobile field kitchen, so food was available for everyone. We were all exhausted and starved by this point, so we rotated the crews to the kitchen for some relief. It was amazing ! A complete chicken dinner. A half chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, gravy, and blueberry cake – all freshly prepared by the guardsmen. Gallons of hot coffee, hot chocolate, and lemonade too. As we left the food area, we were given box lunches of ham and cheese sandwiches, fruit, cookies, and sodas to take back for later. Just amazing. I can still taste that chicken dinner.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Stanley Forman shot these:

Duke continues: “As dawn broke, we gradually shut down the lights and were asked to relieve some of the crews on the hose lines, until their relief crews arrived. Around 9 a.m. we were released from the scene, but asked to return at 6 p.m. to provide lights for the next night. We returned to Burlington to get some sleep and service the trucks, but went right back to Chelsea and spent the night providing lights in various locations as crews still worked many hot spots.

“We were released and returned to Burlington as the sun came up Tuesday morning. The scale of destruction is difficult to describe. We saw two totally burned-out fire trucks that had to be abandoned at the height of the fire. Buildings near the Williams School were completely incinerated up to the walls facing the school, which survived thanks to a fierce fight. The total destruction of complete city blocks was shocking.”

Burlington Auxiliary Engine 10 – 1959 Mack 750GPM Pumper c. 1992 with Steve Duke. This was originally Burlington Fire Dept Engine 1, the town’s first commercially-produced pumper. It was transferred to the Auxiliary Fire Dept in 1989 after serving the town for almost 30 years as a front line engine. The Auxiliary volunteers restored it, repainted it and operated it as a reserve engine for another 19 years until it was finally retired in 2008. Pretty good bang for the buck considering the town paid $23,765.00 for it new.

Editor’s note: If you’re reading this article on a cell phone, it might not display correctly. Scroll to the very bottom and tap “exit mobile version.”

8 thoughts on “The day the sky turned black Leave a comment

  1. Fantastic report of a Boston area conflagration unlike any other in anyone’s memory. Thanks for the memories.

  2. My daughter in law’s father who just passed away was the dispatcher for three days on the Chelsea fire. The Chelsea fire dept just did a great tribute to him by the ringing of the bell and telling all the firefighters on three shifts how he was the calm voice during a hectic period. Before he died my son gave him a copy of the dispatch calls. His name was George Brown if you want to look him up.

  3. I remember very well seeing that smoke. I was driving on Winn St and pulled over as countless fire trucks passed and they all got on 128 heading for 93.

  4. Great Picture of the old Cabones market in Winmere,,,we all hung out there as kids,, the Flats and the Hills , Jimmy Browns Father lost his tire salvage buisness in that fire,, in the long run it was a great thing for him,, the government put him back in buisness and it took off for the family,,

  5. The Civil Defense shared a maintenance garage with the town recreation dept at the former Nike site. Up Harriet Ave and left on Edgemere Ave. Remember seeing that truck. First truck photo is front of one of the Nike buildings.

  6. Steve Duke and his team always did an outstanding job for the Town of Burlington and nearby communities. Steve was the Director of Civil Defense for many years.
    Thanks to his efforts Burlington was a stronger and safer place in which to live and work.

Leave a Reply