South Boston Fire Rescue - 33 Years Later

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The Story Behind the Photos

August 3, 2010,

In July of 2010 I received a message from Tammi Brownlee on Facebook. My usual process for Facebook is to find out if I know a person before I accept a contact and then I received a personal email via my website from her which stated:

“Message: I believe you took a photo for the Boston Herald American in Jan 1977 of a little girl and another of her mother that were published in the paper. The fire took place on Jan 21, 1977 on 173 W Sixth St in South Boston. I am not sure if you would still have these pictures or more pictures that were not published. I am the little girl in the picture, Tammi.”

Tammi told me she went to the Boston Public Library to search for clues, Googled Boston Fires and came up with my name and website. After printing out a copy of my paper’s front page which had my byline she contacted me.

January 21, 1977, was a Friday night when I must have been out cruising for news as it is the only way I could have arrived so quickly at this tragic fire in South Boston. Four people died from the fire with a 5th person taking his own life shortly thereafter as a result of his loss from the fire. One of the victims of the fire, Tammi’s mother, Ella May Kurtz, 30, died a couple of weeks later after unsuccessful attempts at saving her from her fire wounds and her brother John Ben Kurtz, 6, died at the fire.

When I got there the first shot I took was of firefighter and Chief’s Aide George Girvan rushing a three year old to safety after she was passed to him from firefighters who rescued her from the fire. I did not know at the time it was a girl.

It was one of the most intense fires I had ever been at. Knowing there were people trapped in the building and watching firefighter’s attempts to get to them was very dramatic. It went to three alarms and I still remember the firefighters in a room with hose lines around a woman inside trying to get her out.

After a time her mother was pulled out and came right towards me on a stretcher (this was before yellow tape) as I could almost stand where I needed to be without being moved away. At the time I felt professionally it was the best stretcher photo I had ever taken. I took several other images that night, a total of eleven and a couple of them being of Alfred “Chubby” Chase be aided with oxygen after stumbling out from the fire building. I also went to the fire house a few hours later and delivered photos to the firefighters. PS. Chubby was never chubby just a nickname his mother gave him.

This fire would have been another tragic fire that I have covered over my many years in this business but then this email came from Tammi and almost immediately I knew exactly which photos Tammi was talking about. And even more importantly, I knew I still had the negatives. We got together Friday, July 30, 2010, with a TV crew from our news magazine, Chronicle, at WCVB-TV. Tammi brought her children Chris and Ashley, along with her boyfriend of 10 years Chad King, a Cape Cod Firefighter. Tammi says “I guess firefighters are my protectors.”

In the interview conducted by producer Jason Potts and shot by photographer Carl Vieira we all learned many things. After the fire she spent 8 months in the hospital with her heart stopping 3 times. When she finally got out her father took her to Arizona to live. At age 13 she decided to move back to South Boston to be with her grandmother and aunts. After a time she ended up in foster care and said “it was a great experience as the two families she lived with were wonderful.”

Tammi said “she was never provided with any information about the fire.” Whether it was to protect her or lack of knowledge we will never know. I do know that my newspaper only ran one story in the Sunday paper two days later with no follow-ups, a very unusual happening. I also learned that Tammi’s mother had two birth children previous to her and her brother. Her mother gave these two children up for adoption and now Tammi is trying to locate her half siblings.

After the interview in a hotel room we all went to the fire scene where, unknown to Tammi, retired firefighter Alfred Chase would be waiting for her. The fire scene is now a vacant fenced in lot owned by the City. As Tammi and I walked up to the scene she was looking at this man coming towards she seemed confused as to who this man could be. When I told her this was Alfred Chase she knew exactly who he was from the newspaper clippings she had read and was taken aback. I felt guilty about surprising her after seeing her reaction but I was doing a news story. What I did not know is Chase remembered all the details and the first thing he said was the news reports were incorrect back then and he described to her what really happened.

He remembered locating her in the fire room dragging her to safety with the help of other firefighters and passing her off to safety. It was a very emotional meeting for all. Tammi said she learned a lot about that night from Firefighter Chase. I will be updating as Tammi’s quest for answers continues.

Today, September 23, 2010 I got an email that Tammi has located her sister and now the search for her brother continues.

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