This week the city of Boston mourns and honors Boston firefighters Lt. Edward J. Walsh Jr., 43, and Michael R. Kennedy, 33, who were trapped in a fire in a brownstone at 298 Beacon Street in the Back Bay. The era of the internet has been a remarkable force, garnering community support, thoughts and prayers, as well as encouraging donations to help the firefighters’ families.
Three decades ago a similar fire took the lives of my mother’s cousin Jimmy Gibbons, 31, and his friend Lt. Paul M. Lentini of Engine Company 37, in a brownstone at 0 Newbury St. in the Back Bay. The Boston Fire Historical Society reports that just after 3 p.m. on 6 January 1981, a fire was discovered in a historic retail brownstone building by the entrance to the Boston Public Gardens, and fire “spread through an open-cage elevator shaft to the upper floors, which housed several offices, including that of the Boston School Volunteers and former Governor Francis Sargent [who] was able to escape the building unharmed… after the fire had been knocked down and overhauling operations had begun, a partial collapse of the upper floors occurred (an event similar to the tragic Vendome Fire of 1972). The third floor gave way, with the fourth floor crashing down on top of the firefighters… Twelve firefighters were trapped in the rubble. The body of Fire Lieutenant Paul M. Lentini of Engine Company 37 was located, trapped by a fallen beam. Beneath Lentini were several firefighters, who were trapped but alive. Searches continued for other missing firefighters, until all were accounted for except for Firefighter James M. Gibbons of Engine 37. After many hours of searching, his body was recovered at 10:30 p.m at the bottom of the collapse area”.
Firefighter James Michael Gibbons was born in Boston in 1949, the son of James J. Gibbons, a newspaperman for the Boston Herald, and Mary Joan Granville. He was married with two young sons at the time of his death. The Gibbons were a large Boston Irish family. His great-grandparents, James and Celia (Doherty) Gibbons had emigrated from County Donegal, Ireland, then married and started a large family in Boston. Their eldest son, Charles James Joseph Gibbons (1884-1945) married Margaret E. Duff(e)y and had four children, including my Nana, Marie Gibbons, and her younger brother James J. Gibbons – the father of Firefighter James “Jimmy” M. Gibbons. Jimmy Gibbons became a Boston firefighter in July 1974 at the age of 25 and had served with Brighton Ladder 22 and Dorchester Ladder 6 before his assignment in December 1976 to Engine Company 37 on Huntington Ave.
I inherited a small collection of family papers from Marie (Gibbons) Buckley Marotta, including the following newspaper clippings she held onto. She would sometimes reflect upon her nephew’s tragic death and describe his bravery and sense of humor, and how awestruck the family was when thousands of firefighters came to pay their respects.
GIBBONS-In Quincy, January 6, in the line of duty, Boston Firefighter James M., Engine Company 37; beloved husband of Marie E. (Foley); devoted father of Sean and Dennis; beloved son of James J. and Mary (Granville) Gibbons of Hyde Park; brother of Joan Gibbons of Quincy, Mrs. Barbara Crawford of East Bridgewater, and Mrs. Maureen Devin of Somerville. Funeral from the John J. O’Connor Funeral Home, 740 Adams St. (near Gallivan Boulevard), DORCHESTER, Saturday morning at 11:15. Funeral Mass in Our Lady of Good Counsel Church at 12:30. Relatives and friends respectfully invited. Visiting hours Thursday evening 7-9, Friday 2-4 and 7-9. Member Local 718, Society of St. Florian, B.F.D. Drill Team. Interment St. Joseph’s Cemetery. In lieu of flowers donations may be made in his memory to the Jimmy Fund.
Mass in Quincy on Saturday
A Mass for Pvt. James Gibbons, 31, of Quincy, a member of Engine Co. 37 of the Boston Fire Department, will be celebrated at 12:30 Saturday in Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, Quincy. Gibbons was killed Tuesday while fighting an eight-alarm fire at Arlington and Newbury Streets, Back Bay. He was appointed to Boston Fire Department in July, 1974, and was assigned to Ladder 22 in Brighton. In September, 1975, he was transferred to Ladder 6, Morton Street, Dorchester, and on December 1, 1976, he was assigned to Engine Co. 37, Huntington Avenue and Ruggles Street, Roxbury, from where he responded to the fire. He was a member of Local 718 of the International Association of Firefighters, Society of St. Florian and the Fire Department’s Drill Team. He leaves his wife, Marie E. (Foley); two sons, Sean and Dennis, and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. James J. Gibbons of Hyde Park. His father is a printer in the composing room of the Herald American. He also leaves three sisters, Joan Gibbons of Quincy, Mrs. Barbara Crawford of East Bridgewater and Mrs. Maureen Devin of Somerville. Interment will be in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, West Roxbury. Arrangements are by the John J. O’Connor and Son Funeral Home, Dorchester.
Years later I attended grad school on Huntington Avenue and often walked by Engine No. 37, where a memorial plaque is placed in honor of their fallen firefighters. My mother, brother and I later visited the firehouse specifically to read the plaque and chat with some of the firefighters to thank them and remember. At the time I was working on Newbury Street just a block away from 0 Newbury St., which has since been completely rebuilt and today houses a Burberry retail shop. A quieter place for reflection is at the beautiful Vendome Fire Memorial on Commonwealth Ave. and Dartmouth St.
In addition to the memorial plaques at Engine 37, they also had Boston University students paint a mural on the station wall memorializing their fallen firefighters as well as celebrating their unit. There is also a Lentini-Gibbons Memorial Baseball Diamond at East Second & N Streets in South Boston and a Fire Fighter Memorial at Florian Hall which commemorates all Boston Local 718 members who died in the line of duty, including James M. Gibbons. All these years later, we still remember, celebrate, and are so very thankful the bravery of all our firefighters.