I could feel my face burning from a block away, and now 30 years later, the Great Lynn Fire of 1981 still stands out as the biggest I have ever seen. I have since covered the 9/11 attacks, the War in Iraq and many great human disasters, but few experiences are etched more clearly in my memory than watching the firestorm as flames leapt from building to building in downtown Lynn that night.
It was very early in my freelance career and I had my new portable crystal radio scanner running while up late at my parents’ house on the southwest corner of Boston, and playing chess with my brother Jack. We listened to the “intercity” mutual aid frequency as the fire spread quickly from two alarms to five – and we joked about taking a ride to the old mill city up north if the fire reached ten alarms. A few minutes later that mark was met and we were in my car.
We first spotted the glow of the firestorm from the Tobin Bridge as we crossed the Mystic River heading north from downtown Boston. As I recall, authorities stopped counting at ten alarms but called for all possible mutual aid. I saw one fire truck from New Hampshire and heard stories about others coming from as far as Connecticut and Maine.
Few sounds compare with the collapse of an old brick factory building — and I witnessed several that night. Every time I tried to circler the perimeter, more buildings were burning and the walk took longer. I have never seen another firestorm and I will be OK if I don’t.
I took the photo posted above but when we turned up at the Associated Press in Boston later that morning, they bought photos from Jack instead. At least we both left with some great lessons in news photography but I really wish I could have covered this catastrophe with the skill set I had just a few years later.
As I recall, there were suspicions of arson but no arrests, although I can’t find many news reports online today. I am pretty sure there were no fatalities and a community college campus eventually sprung up on the site.
The events are captured very clearly in a video I found on YouTube, pasted below. In a strange way, it’s good to see it again, if only to prove my memories to myself.