In the early 1970s Chelsea, Massachusetts on the north bank of the Mystic River was a good example of a failed post-industrial city. Thousands of residents had moved out of the working-class community throughout the 50s and 60s. The Expressway split the city and sped up the decline, then on October 14, 1973 the coffin was nailed shut, when the rag shop district burst into flames, burning eighteen blocks into ashes.
That windy Sunday I left my Brighton apartment to have dinner at my parents' house on the South Shore. My cousin Cindy was visiting from Quincy. During dinner WBZ Radio reported that Chelsea was in flames.
"Ssssh," my father quieted the table. He had fought the Great Maine Fire of 1947 and liked a good fire.
The radio reporter announced that the Mystic River Bridge had been shut down and the governor had called out the National Guard.
"This I have to see." My older brother had almost torched our house in Maine playing with matches and at 14 we had set the nearby woods on fire toasting marshmallows. The school psychiatrist said that his pyromania was a release of anxiety or a search for euphoria. My mother thought Frunk's perchance for arson as a threat from Satan.
"Fire is a tool of the Devil." My mother was a serious Catholic.
"God spoke to Moses from a burning bush." I argued, but didn't mention Vulcan had been spawned from a spark in his mother's womb and fire symbolized purity to the Zorasterians, since my mother had little patience with pagans and had little knowledge of my atheism.
"And I want to see." Frunk was her first-born.
"From where?" asked my mother.
"Just from the top of the hill."
The Blue Hills behind our suburban neighborhood were the highest elevation on the South Shore.
"From there and nowhere else," my mother commanded and my older brother nodded with averted eyes. He had another destination in mind. "Yes, m'am."
"I'm coming too." Cindy attended an all-girl college. We protested the war together on Boston Commons. A love of fire ran in our family.
"I want to go," said my younger sister, who was a year behind me.
"Not a chance. It's a school night." My mother refused Gina's every entreaty. My father knew better than to intercede. My mother wasn't losing any daughters to the Devil.
"I'll drive Cindy home afterwards. Him too." Frunk pointed to me. I had early morning classes at college and Cindy lived on Beacon Hill.
I kissed my mother good-night. She blessed me with her rosary and slipped me a twenty, which was enough for a week's worth of Labatt Beer.
My older brother drove his VW to the parking lot below Chickatawbut Hill.
Cindy, Frunk, and I climbed to the old CCC tower. Gusts of wind rushed through the trees. The setting sun was giving way to the night and bright stars floated above the Atlantic. Atop the stone tower two teenagers in leather jackets drank beer and smoked cigarettes.
My brother observed the fire through my father's binoculars.
"Is it bad?"
"Take a look." Frunk handed the glasses to me.
Fiery tongues of yellow and red leapt through the black smoke. Fire engines howled from the expressway. Chelsea needed help or else the city wouldn't exist in the morning. I gave the binoclars to Cindy.
"Ooo, that's big." The eighteen year-old coed was impressed by the conflagration.
"I want to see this closer." Frunk descended the stairs. Chelsea was miles away, but the fire was a powerful magnet to a teenaged arsonist.
"From where?" I followed him.
"From closer." He ran to the VW. I hadn't seen the law student this excited since he talked the cops out of arresting me at a college anti-war protest.
"Chelsea." He turned to Cindy. "I'll drop you off first."
"No, you won't." The willowy brunette studied ancient history at Harvard. "It isn't every day that you get to see a city burn like Rome.
"I hosey co-pilot." My map sense was the best on either side of my family and I drove taxi to support myself through college. I held open the door for Cindy. She jumped in the back and I sat in the front. My brother screeched from the parking lot and I pulled out a Massachusetts map, plotting a route to Chelsea.
Frunk turned on the radio.
The WBZ announcer said that the wind-blown fire was out of control. The city's hydrants couldn't provide enough water for the hoses. Fire companies from all over the Bay State were descending on the burning city. The National Guard was stationed on Everett Avenue.
"You know anyone in Chelsea?" asked Cindy, as we sped on the inbound Route 3.
"Then let's make up a name, so that if the police asks us about why we're there, then we can say we're the_____what?"
"Evans." I liked the Red Sox right fielder. He had a good bat and a strong arm to the plate.
My brother pulled over twice to make way for convoys of fire trucks guided by State cruisers. Frunk pulled behind one and drafted on the tail of a ladder truck from Marshfield. Over the radio the Chelsea Fire Chief requested that spectators avoid the city.
"He's not talking to me." Fire branded my brother's soul. It was love not Satan pulling to the burning city.
I figured the Artery was jammed with fire trucks and at the Sumner Tunnel I said, "Get off the Expressway at Chinatown."
Frunk obeyed my directions. We cut through the Combat Zone and climbed over Beacon Hill.
"I don't see any smoke." My older brother peered into the night sky.
"You will soon." I pointed through the North End towers to a wavering orange glow. "Wait till we get to the Charles."
After passing the Charles Street Jail an awesome glare pulsated beyond the black shadow on Bunker Hill. People lined the Longfellow Bridge. Cars slowed for the drivers to rubberneck the spectacle, but the police were setting up roadblocks on the Cambridge side of the river and Frank asked.
"How are we going to get there?"
"Turn onto Memorial Drive."
I piloted him under the trolley viaduct across the railroad tracks to New Rutherford Avenue past the site of the old Charlestown Prison, which had been replaced by Bunker Hill Community College. Cindy and Frunk spoke with a rising excitement. We skirted fire barricades and were surprised by the extant of the conflagration upon reaching the Alford Street Bridge over the Mystic River. Red and gold flashed off the water underneath a plateau of the fire trucks' spinning lights of fire trucks. A single Chelsea cop car manned the other end of the bridge. The officer leaned against a light-pole smoking a cigarette.
"We live in Chelsea. We got to get our dog," I said quickly.
"Everett Ave." It wasn't close to the fire. "I'll cut across Riley's Way to get there. Is there fire there?"
"No, but you be careful." He looked exhausted and ordered, "Take a right on Beachem Street."
The back road skirted a huddle of fuel tanks.
"If these caught fire, it'd really be something." Frunk's eyes shined with hope.
"Don't even think about it." Cindy knew my brother well.
"I'm not that kid anymore. I'm almost in law school."
I liked him as the arsonist better.
A line of cops stood in the street at the end of Island End River.
The police were too tired to enforce the no-go zone.
"Park the car here."
Other fire enthusiasts were doing the same.
Flames rocketed into the night. The fire was fueled by oil-soaked rags and drums of rancid oil. An explosion shuddered the cobblestones like domino tiles. Fire hoses snaked north of Second Street. Another teenager glanced at Cindy. Fire heightened her Irish beauty.
"The cops say the fire started over there." The long-haired townie pointed to the left. "In the rag warehouses."
Firefighters aimed jets of water on a lost building and another townie said, "I heard on the other side of the fire, lines are running all the way from Bellingham Square. That's almost a half-mile from the frontline."
A boom rocked the air. Two fireballs whooshed into the sky. My skin felt the heat from three hundred feet away and Frunk said, "Let's get closer."
Embers soared overhead. Ashes rained on us. I expected to see Godzilla breathing lava on Chelsea.
"This is far enough for me." The local teenager stopped before twin columns of fire.
"The twin burning bushes of Chelsea." Frunk was drawn forward in a hypnotic trance to where the walls of flames rose overhead to form a hellish tunnel. Here wasn't a fireman in sight and I grabbed at his arm. He shrugged off my hand. "I came here for this."
"And I'm not seeing my brother barbecued here."
"I'll be fine. Heat rises. C'mon. You'll never see something like this ever again in your life. It's like Chelsea had been bombed by the Luftwaffe."
"Or Hanoi by the Air Force," I sneered, since Frunk had voted for Nixon to end the war.
Politics were unimportant. I stared into the fiery maw. The wind shifted and the enflamed corridor opened to the stars, but the gauntlet's intense heat baked my skin and I saw a face growing in the fire. I was a lifelong atheist, but the eyes looked like they belonged to the Devil. He called my name. I was wanted in Hell. I had no idea why, but I shouted, "Run."
I waited for Frunk and Cindi to go ahead of me. I was the fastest, but didn't want to show my fear.
At the end of the block firefighters shook their heads. I had wanted to be one when I was a kid.
"Where did you come from?" a black-faced fireman asked, ready to spray us down.
"From there." Frunk nodded over his shoulder.
"Stupid kids. Get out of here."
His long night was for professionals.
I had no trouble persuading Frunk to leave the devastated city. He was in shock.
"What did you see back there?" Cindy asked as if she might have seen something.
"Nothing and you?" I asked Frunk.
He didn't say the word.
Cindy and I walked him back to the VW. Ambulances idled on the road. No one had been hurt in the fire, but Frunk was in a state of shock. I took the keys and drove us to Charles Street. I parked the car and we went into the Sevens. Frunk liked Brothers better, but this was my choice. I ordered us three beers and we sat at the bar. My brother watched Patriots highlights on the TV. There weren't many. The home team had lost to the Jets 9-7.
The barman sniffed at us.
"You start a fire?"
"No, but we saw the one in Chelsea." Cindy had a nice way of saying 'Chelsea'. She was seeing an Englishman.
He expected a report and I told him everything.
"No one died, but the city is toast." I left out of the face in the fire.
No one would believe me and I wasn't cut out to be a convert to Satanism.
I was happy with my atheism and sipped at my beer, because while there might not be a God, other creatures haunted the flames at night especially when a city burns to the ground and wherever they lived no beer will be served throughout eternity.
Of this I was sure after surviving the Great Chelsea Fire of 1973.
PHOTOS FROM THE GREAT CHELSEA FIRE OF 1973
fotos by Stanley Foreman