‘I knew them all’: Survivor of ’41 inferno looks to honor comrades
By Dave Wedge
Boston Herald Chief Enterprise Reporter
Friday, March 9, 2007 - Updated: 01:29 AM EST
Sixty-six years ago, Edward “Sonny” Burrell was a gung-ho 26-year-old who cheated death in a Brockton theater blaze that ranks second only to the Sept. 11 attacks as the single deadliest day for firefighters in American history.
The 92-year-old retired Brockton fire chief is the last surviving member of the department that battled the March 10, 1941, Strand Theater inferno that killed 13 firefighters. He’s now hoping he’ll live to see a long-overdue memorial.
“I’d like to see the memorial before I die,” Burrell said. “It was a pretty tragic event for all of us at the time. Thirteen of them gone and there were several of them injured. I knew them all.”
Tomorrow marks the 66th anniversary of the deadly fire, and the city is continuing a push to raise enough money for a memorial on City Hall plaza.
Led by Lt. Richard Baker of the Brockton firefighters union, the department is nearing its $150,000 fund-raising goal for a bronze statue of a firefighter and a granite memorial just feet from the site of the deadly fire.
Former Brockton fire Chief Edward Burrell, at his Brockton home, is the only surviving firefighter who fought the blaze at the Strand Theater that killed 13 firefighters. (Staff photo by David Goldman)
Brockton fire Chief Kenneth Galligan said Burrell’s advancing age has become a driving force to complete the project.
“We would like to get this memorial done in honor of him while he is still with us,” the chief said. “He’s not getting any younger. We would love to have him there when that memorial is dedicated.”
The city has approved the project and a Northampton artist has been selected to design the memorial. “It’s . . . long overdue,” Mayor James Harrington said.
For Burrell, the tragedy is a distant memory, but one which he feels younger generations should never forget. He recalled the toll the tragedy took on the then-bustling Shoe City as surviving firefighters took up collections to help care for the many widows and fatherless children left behind.
He also recalls how he almost lost his life that day. He was part of a company that was extending a ladder onto the Strand’s roof when the structure collapsed.
“Just as we were putting the ladder down onto the roof so we could get down on it, the roof caved in,” he recalled. “If it had been five minutes more, there would have been five more of us in there.”
The push for the Brockton memorial is just the latest struggle to honor fallen Bay State firefighters.
It took years to build a memorial to the nine Boston firefighters killed in the 1972 Hotel Vendome fire, and efforts still are under way to build a memorial to six Worcester firefighters killed in 1999.
A $1 million State House memorial to fallen firefighters partially funded by a $250,000 state grant is slated to be dedicated in the fall.
“All of these are very important to memorialize the public safety workers who died very courageously in the line of duty,” said state Fire Marshall Stephen Coan.