Boston's Stanley Forman: Worst Fire Call I Ever Heard

Boston photojournalist Stanley Forman (left) and his "Fire on Marlborough Street" photographs that won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography.
Boston photojournalist Stanley Forman (left) and his "Fire on Marlborough Street" photographs that won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography.

By Donald R. Winslow

BOSTON, MA (March 28, 2014) – "I still remember, when I was listening to the radio I welled up in tears. I kept hoping their radio was dead, or maybe the battery went dead, or that the rescuers had got them, or they dropped the radio," Stanley Forman said today. "But it was not meant to be."

The scanner traffic was intense, actually frightening to hear. And then that long, deadly silence.

If there's anyone on the streets of Boston who knows fire and its terror, it's three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Stanley Forman. The same legendary photojournalist who used to sleep with police scanner speakers under his pillow.

So when Forman sent out this Tweet on Wednesday from the scene of a nine-alarm, wind-fueled, Back Bay brownstone fire, those who know him and his photographic legacy immediately understood the enormity of what he witnessed: 

"Worst fire call I ever heard. A Mayday, FF looking for help, dispatcher Eng 33 we R coming to get U! 22 mins silence, 2 DOA #wcvb #Boston"

Lt. Edward Walsh, 43, a father of three, and firefighter Michael R. Kennedy, 33, a Marine Corps combat veteran, died when winds that exceeded 40 m.p.h., fueled by a spiraling offshore Atlantic storm, whipped fierce flames that trapped firefighters in the Beacon Street apartment building basement. Investigators say the blaze appears to have been accidental.

The men from Engine 33, Ladder 15 on Boylston Street had only been in the building two or three minutes before they were trapped and called a mayday, fire officials said. Lt. Walsh came from a family of firefighters, according to the Boston Fire Department, and Kennedy, a bachelor, worked on the board of the Boston Firefighters Burn Foundation, a non-profit that serves burn victims.

The words "fire" and "Boston" and the name "Forman" are synonymous for most journalists ever since July 22, 1975, when he shot a series of pictures that later were titled "Fire on Marlborough Street." The breathtaking black-and-white photographs captured Diana Bryant, 19, and her goddaughter Tiare Jones, 2, falling through thin air after the fire escape on their burning apartment building collapsed. Bryant died from her injuries but the baby survived, thanks in part to landing on Bryant's body. The photographs were awarded the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography as well as World Press Photo of the Year. In the aftermath, the attention brought to fire escape standards by news stories led to modern fire escape legislation in the United States.

Wednesday started out as any other normal winter day does now for Forman, who switched from still photography and newspapers to video and television news for WCBV-TV in 1983.

"I went in a 3:30 in the morning to do the snow story," Forman said. "I was done and going home, and as soon as I got in the car I heard a scanner call for someone trapped on a fourth floor balcony. My ears perked up at that. I called the office. I know that stretch of Beacon Street. [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady lives near there. I was going to take the highway home but I decided to go through the city instead, in case the fire turned up to be anything I would be closer, I could stop. Then the 'Mayday' came in."

Forman's attention went to a much higher level now.

"Of all the Mayday's I've heard in all these years, they always got out. This was different. You heard this terrifying, heart-wrenching call. 'We need water!' Mayday!' And then minutes passed. The dispatcher said, 'We're coming to get you!' Then there was just silence. I just welled up in tears." [Listen to the Boston Fire Department archived audio]

Forman kicked into work mode. "I knew other crews were coming [from the TV station] so I didn't start covering action, I had my backpack and I set up a live shot. I knew that's what they'd need, to go live from the scene. So I started feeding live video as they went on the air. You know, in television, you turn in your video like everyone else and it gets edited into a story, and you're the only one who knows what you shot. It's not like a still image where you can hold it up and say 'Hey, that shot's mine.'"

For as many fires as Forman has shot in his career, he's only covered a handful of firefighters' funerals. "Next week I'm sure I'll be involved somehow in covering these two funerals," he said today.

Last year while Forman was laid up with a leg injury the photographer had the time to go through almost 50 years of his negatives from Boston fire scenes. In the process, he decided to compile them into a book. The result was "Before Yellow Tape: A Pulitzer Prize-Winner's Fire Images." The title comes from the old days, before the yellow tape that police and firefighters string up today to keep the media far removed from a news scene, back in the days when Forman says he had "unlimited access" to New England's biggest stories. 

Before switching to video and becoming a television news photographer, Forman was a staff photographer for the Boston Herald American. During a four-year period he was awarded three Pulitzer Prizes. The first for "Fire on Marlborough Street," followed by "The Soiling of Old Glory" in 1977. The news picture showed a black lawyer being assaulted by a man who was wielding an American flag on a flag pole, who was using it as a stabbing weapon, during the height of anti-busing unrest in Boston. Then in 1979 the newspaper's photography staff was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for their team coverage of a 1978 blizzard.