This is my real life story!
|I was born on December 6, 1973 in Phoenix, Arizona to Ella Mae Kurtz and David Rollins. The first three years of my life were as average as any other family, we lived in Arizona till I was two. Then, for reasons unknown or not remembered by others, my mother moved herself, my brother John and myself back to South Boston, Massachusetts. I would feel safe to assume that my parents had a fight and my mother left my father. We would move into an apartment on the second floor of 173 West Sixth Street. Everything was going alright until a dark cold night. On January 21, 1977 just before midnight on that cold night in South Boston, Massachusetts, my life was forever altered. I personally don’t remember much of that night, I need to rely on verbal accounts of people who were there, pictures and somewhat inaccurate newspaper accounts, some parts I have added not knowing if that was what really happened, but based on assumptions considering the story that was told to me. The rest is the story of my life, based on memories that I have buried deep inside my head that I try to forget, and stories that I was told while growing up.
The night air was cold, snow banks lined the streets. Just a couple weeks prior almost 14 inches of snow fell down around Boston, leaving the sidewalks barely bare. We still had about 11 inches left, the chilly temperatures made it impossible for it to melt away. West Sixth St is a narrow one way street, parked cars lined the street in front of their respective homes. Triple deckers is what they called the buildings, meaning that they had three floors, each house also had two sides.
I lived at 173, which was also 175, on the second floor with my mom, Ella, my brother, John who was six, he was getting ready to celebrate his seventh birthday on the following Monday. My father sometimes stayed with us when him and my mother were not fighting, this particular night he was not there. They had had a fight a few days before and my mom told him to leave, knowing full well that he would be back again, its how it always was. We had a friend staying with us, Debra, her mother was friends with my mother. My aunt Midge lived across the street from us, as far as I know she visited us often but not this night, not that late. She had two children with her, my cousins Scott and Tommy. I would like to imagine that we had dinner together, watched TV like a normal family would on a Friday night, then it was off to bed for us three kids.
Our apartment building, like I said was three stories high, one apartment on each floor, had a wood frame with shingles. Really kind of plain in appearance. It was situated on a hill with little to no room on either side to separate it from the next building. The sidewalks were narrow, even narrower with the snow banks that were piled along the edge of the curb. There were low hanging wires along the street as well, bringing electricity, phone and cable into our home, these cables would hinder any efforts to help us that night. Inside was warm, with soft lights not ready to be turned off just yet. It was a peaceful but cold January night. It was Friday, January 21, 1977.
Sirens pierced the sound of night, a fire truck was en route to somewhere. I wonder if I heard them, or anyone else in our apartment for that matter. Where were they going? My house, that’s where. I couldn’t see anything, there was something in the air that made me cough. Why cant I breathe, I am sure that went through my three year old mind. I was scared. I would like to believe that I called for my mother, or even for John, my brother, but I can’t recall. I know I had to be crying. The sirens are getting louder I am sure they must be coming here. John is here, I can feel him, Debra too. What do we do? Where is mom? I didn’t know this at the time, but my mother was in the living room, trying to call for help. I often wondered what went through her mind that night, I wish I knew. She had to be scared, worried about her children, even worried about herself.
Outside the first fire trucks arrived, three engines and two ladder trucks, this was a working fire with children still inside. I wasn’t long before they realized they needed more help, a second alarm and then a third alarm went out, soon after there were two more calls for assistance. Fire was coming out of the windows on the first floor, roaring through the small openings that once had windows in them, it didn’t take long for the fire to spread to the second floor then the third floor. The shingles were burning, but the firefighters knew they had to get inside, there were people in there, there were small children. Entry from the front stairwell proved to be useless, the fire had rapidly extended up the front stairwell toward the second floor, so they set up their ladders to go through the window. Two of them would go inside, while a third would stay on the ladder at the window to help them find their way back out. As the two firefighters went in, they had to crawl on the floor, feeling around for anyone they could find. The smoke was thick and it was so hot inside, but they kept searching, they knew there were children in there and they had to find them. As they worked their way around the front room and found nothing, they moved onto the next room, where one of them found Debra, my brother John and myself. It appeared that Debra was laying on top of John and I, as though she was trying to protect us from the flames and smoke. We were all unconscious and the firefighter knew he had to move fast to get us out of there. He grabbed me first, I was not responsive, but he shared his oxygen mask with me, trying desperately to get fresh air into my lungs. Not sure if I was even alive, he brought me back to the window and passed me to the firefighter waiting on the ladder. I was rushed to the ambulance. The firefighter returned to the room to grab the others, not realizing it might be too late, he just had to try.
Outside was my aunt and my uncle, they lived across the street from us and were awoken by the noise. Standing there in horror, my aunt cried. I know she did. Her sister and sisters kids were still inside. The sight was horrific, nothing that she had ever seen before. A phone call to family informed them of what was happening. My cousins Scott and Tommy were still asleep in their beds. Others had gathered around the fire trucks, back then there were no yellow tapes to stop people from getting too close. A photographer was there taking pictures, probably for a news paper or something. Everyone was staring at the scene in front of them. My father stood off to the side, shocked at what was happening. He couldn’t believe his eyes. How had this happened, he thought, why is this happening?
The firefighters were busy spraying the building with water, low hanging wires prevented them from using aerial ladders, but the large snow banks hindered the effects of ground ladders. But still they persisted, splashing the building with water from all angles. After a while the firefighter that had brought me out, exited the building and had to receive oxygen himself. Overcome by smoke and having to share his mask with the kids, he was taken to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation. Others took his spot, John was brought out, unconscious and not breathing. Debra was brought out the same way, the EMT’s were able to bring Debra back, but not John. My brother John died that night, he was six years old. Our neighbor from the third floor, Mrs. Milley, was found deceased as well, her husband was brought to the hospital. Eventually my mother brought out, she was burned over a large portion of her body. Billows of smoke still poured out of the windows, with all the victims pulled from the building, the firefighters continued to try to extinguish the fire that had spread so rapidly throughout the building. Flames reached out to the sky, raging with fury, trying to overcome the building. But the water appeared to dampen the effects, although too late. The building was a loss, nothing left, no memories, no toys, no clothes and the loss of two victims. A loaf of bread lay on the sidewalk, a reminder that a family had once been inside. By five in the morning, the fire was out, the sun was preparing to rise, while others tried to cope with what had happened. Families torn apart, a neighborhood ripped apart by grief, one child and one adult dead, two other children fighting for their lives and my mother fighting to survive. Mr. Milley was in shock, his wife was dead, he barely escaped with his own life, but he had no idea how to live without her. The fire was soon to be investigated by the Boston Arson Squad. Someone had to of set it, this didn’t happen naturally. Couldn’t have, could it? Firefighters cleared the scene for investigators, other neighbors came out. Curious as to how the people who lived there were doing, but no one seemed to know. The events of that night would linger in their minds as they prepared for their day to start.
At the hospital the doctors and nurses were scrambling around, they had fire victims they had to save. My mother laid in a bed in the room next to mine, she had been burnt over most of her body. I had not been burnt, I had inhaled a lot of smoke and was not breathing, the doctors were trying desperately to get me to breathe, to find a pulse. They just couldn’t lose this three year old little girl. It was soon decided, after they felt a pulse from me, that I need to have a tracheotomy, I needed that to breathe. There I laid on the bed, tubes coming out of my throat and arms. Those would end up being the only visible scars of that horrific night. My grandparents and aunts were standing outside the rooms, waiting anxiously for word of how we were doing. Aunt Patty was given permission to see my mother, she walked in to see my mother laying there, her eyes were open. “Where’s John and Tammi?” she asked her.
“They are in the next room Ella.” aunt Patty said to her, she couldn’t tell her just yet about John. Nana made her promise not to say anything yet. Besides how would she tell her that her six year old son had died, was dead when he was brought out. The smoke and fire had taken over his body and they were unable to bring him back, he had died on January 22, 1977, just two days shy of his seventh birthday. “Can you sit up and let me see your back?” she helped her lean up a little and looked at the burns on her back, she could see bones in some areas, the skin on her back was almost gone.! “Oh my god Ella!”
“Is it bad? I cant really feel it anymore.” she had been burned more than eighty percent of her body, arms, back, legs. The curtain had fallen on her back as she stood at the window. Flames had raced up them fast and she had found the window was not going to work, she couldn’t get out that way. “I couldn’t find them” she was talking about us. John, Debra and me. She tried to find us, to get us out. Her eyes looked tired, red and swollen. Her whole body was swollen and shiny, she was almost unrecognizable. “Make sure John and Tammi are doing okay please!” she exclaimed.
Two weeks later my mother would pass away, her injuries caused her to have heart attacks. She was having her twelfth heart attack when the doctors realized that they could not save her this time. She died on February 8, 1977, as far as I know, she never knew that John had died as well. I was still in the ICU, tubes were still hanging from me, I had some problems breathing. I have been told that I had technically died four times, that has not been confirmed, and the doctors were able to bring me back each time. No one has ever mentioned if my father came to see me, but I would assume that he did. I don’t remember at all. I was later told that my father had attended the funeral of John and later of my mother, Ella. Debra’s family had attended John’s funeral, from my understanding they believed that my father had set the fire and had come to kill him. Apparently they had brought guns with them, but someone had informed the police and they were able to diffuse the situation. Debra had died that Saturday at the hospital from her injuries, some accounts say she was burned and other accounts say she had inhaled too much smoke. The fire that night would take the lives of five people, my mother, my brother, Debra and the couple who lived upstairs from us. Technically the husband killed himself shortly after the fire, claiming he could not live without his wife. I was left alone, I was the only survivor of the tragic fire, that later was shown to have been set on purpose. Arson, someone had killed my family!
A few months later I recall leaving the hospital, I had no clue how long I had been there, some told me a few months, others told me just over a year. I had bandages covering where the breathing tube had been and my wrists, I had had three open IV’s. My scars would remind me that something horrible had happened, it would take me quite a few years to figure out exactly what had happened.
At first I went to stay at aunt Midge’s house, she had two children, my cousin’s Scott and Tommy. They had lived across the street from my house. A few months later my father came to get me from there, he wanted to bring me back to Arizona with him. I remember an argument between my father and aunt Midge. “She is my daughter, I am her father, I decide where she lives, not you!” I remember my father yelling at her. I then watched my aunt pack up what few things I had and off I went with the man who called himself my father. I had no idea how hard my life was to become, how mean this man would be.