A Bad Night In Southie

JANUARY 2001 - Fires Leave Many Homeless - There couldn't have been a worse night for a fire to start in coastal Massachusetts than the evening of this past October 28.

After
a week of balmy weather, a cold wind had picked up to near gale force
and was sweeping across Boston Harbor into densely populated South
Boston, with its rows of neat three-decker homes separated only by
narrow alleys on the sides and almost back to back in the rear.

It was under these conditions that in rapid succession the first of three unrelated blazes broke out in Southie.

The
first fire on E. Street at 10:30 a.m. started in a clothes dryer,
destroying a triple-decker and convenience store, while the second
seriously damaged an East Broadway funeral home and three residential
buildings.

Weary
firefighters had barely knocked down these two fires when a third fire,
which proved to be the largest and by far the worst, broke out at 9
Swallow Street at 1:30 a.m. the following morning.

Pushed
by swirling wind gusts, the fire quickly spread to 7 and 5 Swallow
Street. The domino effect also pushed flames to the rear where homes on
East Sixth Street became engulfed. Before the fire could be brought
under control, six triple-deckers housing 18 families had either been
destroyed or burned to the extent that they were temporarily
uninhabitable.

Five Swallow Street: Mary McNiff

One
house, at 5 Swallow Street, owned by Association member Mary McNiff,
was seriously damaged but, because of its sturdy construction, was
considered to be restorable. In fact, restorations by the McNiffs and
friends have already begun.

Mrs.
McNiff, 73, is the survivor of Paul McNiff, a Boston district fire
chief. Mary and her son Paulie (Paul) were awoken by a loud pounding on
the door. It was Bill Puglia, a Boston firefighter who was aroused when
the fire reached his home at adjacent 7 Swallow Street. Puglia yelled,
"Fire, get out of the house."

"We
could see the flames," said Mary. "We ran out the door without
attempting to save anything. Bill Puglia ran upstairs to alert Betsy
Shomberg and her two children, but they were already awake. We had
recently renovated the third floor which was not occupied." Ironically
Betsy Shomberg's husband, Bill, was on duty as a Boston firefighter and
was among those who responded to the nine-alarm fire, which reached his
own apartment.

Fortunately,
South Boston is a network of close-knit families, neighbors and
friends. Most of the people left homeless quickly found refuge within
this network. Mary and Paulie are now temporarily living with daughter
Marie and son-in-law John Barrett at nearby E. Second Street. Mary had
previously helped out with after-school care for the Barrett
youngsters, who number among her 13 grandchildren, and while the
Barrett home is a tad crowded, the family would not have it any other
way.

Mary McNiff is a
woman of true grit. Although just about everything in her home was
destroyed by fire, smoke or water, she said the one thing she will miss
the most is the family pig. "It's sort of a family heirloom, a cookie
jar shaped like a pig that has always sat on top of the refrigerator.
It's always been a favorite of my children and grandchildren," she
said, smilingly.

"I'm
so thankful that no lives were lost and there were no serious injuries
to firefighters. It all happened so quickly that it was a miracle that
everyone awoke in time... Homes can be replaced, but not lives. And the
firefighters did a great job in containing the fire without other homes
being lost."

Among
her 7 children, six sons and a daughter, are two Boston firefighters,
Kevin and Bob, who is known as "Ned." "We first lived at Cathedral
Housing where we had some very enjoyable years," she reminisced. "When
we had an opportunity to buy a three-decker on Swallow Street in
Southie for about $12,500, we made the move. That was 32 years ago.
It's hard to believe what houses in South Boston now cost.... I don't
know how young people can afford to buy."

It's
apparent that the McNiffs are a very strong family and led by Mary's
spirit are handling the loss of the homestead well. "My mother is a
wonderful woman," said Paulie. "She has handled this situation like
it's just another bump in the road. Right now her greatest concern is
trying to find the owner of a nice jacket that was placed over her
shoulders when she was standing on the street in her bathrobe. That's
the kind of woman my mother is."

East Broadway

At
East Broadway, the five-alarm fire was caused when at least one
cigarette ignited a wooden cupola on the roof of an apartment above the
Spencer Funeral Home.

Guests
at a Halloween gathering were smoking on the cupola and left cigarette
butts on a window sill, unconfirmed news reports said. The fire then
spread to three triple-deckers.

Association
member Shirley Duggan, who lives directly across the street from the
funeral home, watched the fire blowing across the roofs of the
connected three-deckers as firefighters fought to contain the blaze
from spreading further.

"My
sister-in-law, Anna Litif, owns one of the buildings. Although it
wasn't destroyed, the fire and water damage made it unlivable pending
extensive renovations.

"There
is only a narrow space between the funeral home building and
neighboring apartments. It's so easy for a fire to jump between
buildings when a strong wind is blowing.... The night of the fires
there was an exceptionally strong wind. I went over to East Sixth and
Swallow Street the next day. As bad as it was, many more homes could
have been lost. I heard the firefighters evacuated everyone in the
neighborhood as a precaution."

Shirley
recently retired as an assistant to House majority whip Barbara
Gardner. Prior to working at the State House for 14 years, she was a
teacher in the Saugus and Southbridge school systems.

In
the wake of the fires, the Boston Emergency Management Agency set up a
command center at the L Street Curley Community Center. Staffers have
been on hand to help tenants find alternative housing and expedite
permits for owners who plan to rebuild. Within three days of the fire,
73 people had registered for assistance.

Several
area businesses offered assistance to the victims. Logan Airport Hilton
provided several free rooms and the Charlestown YMCA's Constitution Inn
made 40 rooms with kitchenettes available. Members in Southie, such as
John "Doc" Tynan, said that the response from neighbors offering food,
clothing, money and assistance with rebuilding was typical of that
community. "It's typical of what happens when there's a tragedy. As a
rule people mind their own business, but when others need help there's
no place like South Boston," said Tynan.

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