Late December, back in ’63

Oh, what a night it was indeed. It was late December (31st) back in ’63 and the only real tie in the title of the Four Seasons song has with the crux of this story is the title itself. That night, Nashua was in the middle of a brutal cold snap, with record temps of 22 below zero. Everything was in a very deep freeze. I was a clueless eleven year old kid living on Cedar Street, directly across from where one of the deadliest fires in this city’s history took place.

I can remember my Mom waking me in the very early morning hours telling me we all had to get out of the house, as the house across the street was on fire. Our “house” was a three bedroom tenement apartment, which no longer stands. Cedar street, as it is now, was a typical, very narrow, one-way inner-city street. I remember waking up in a fog and looking through my Mom’s bedroom to where my sisters slept. The room was glowing a bright orange, a reflection through the window of the intensity of that fire. We were all moving as quickly as possible and the typical chaos of such a situation ensued. We were wearing each other’s coats, stumbling for any type of footwear and trying to grab the strong box containing our important papers. Our biggest fear was that a large lumbering tree, that stretched from our building, over the street to the blazing fire, might ignite and head our way. I can remember opening the door to run out, flipping on the hallway light, and seeing a man, wearing only underwear, standing in a puddle of blood at the bottom of the staircase. The smell of burnt hair and flesh was evident, and the man was clearly in a state of shock. My cousin, who lived downstairs from us and was a military veteran, yanked a sheet off a bed, tying it around a large gash on the man’s leg to keep him from bleeding to death. As later reported in the Telegraph, this man woke up to a room on fire, caused by the explosion of a faulty oil space heater. His only escape route was a window that had an exterior storm window affixed to it, which was common back then. He jumped through both. An ambulance eventually arrived and rushed him to the hospital. He survived but required many stitches to close that nasty wound and most likely was treated for hypothermia.

As we stood outside, shivering uncontrollably with only thin coats as protection from the bitter cold, we knew nothing about the situation evolving in that house, other than we hoped no one was still in there. As it turned out, we were very wrong. Little did we know we were witnessing one of the deadliest blazes in Nashua’s history.

When the fire was under control, we returned to our apartment. It took quite some time for all of us to thaw out and by that time, the day had begun.

As dawn broke, I can remember looking out the window to a scene of mangled frozen fire hose with everything, including the firemen themselves, covered in a thick glaze of ice. As the day progressed, we learned the sad news that three children perished in that blaze. They were apparently trapped in an attic bedroom.

Looking back on this tragedy gives one a keen appreciation for first responders. No matter the weather or the situation, they are called to perform a task, oftentimes not a pleasant or an easy one, and they respond quickly and without hesitation.

In 1963, there were no residential smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors or sprinklers. If there were, who knows what the outcome would have been?

Experiencing a tragedy like this makes one appreciate the value of today’s early warning devices. At least twice per year, when we turn the clocks back or ahead, I change the batteries in every one of our smoke detectors, both wired and battery operated. All ten of them. One could argue that’s too many for a house of our size. But it’s a small price to pay to avoid telling another story such as this one.

Don Canney is a freelance writer and professional voice artist. He was born and raised in downtown Nashua with great interest in Nashua history circa 1950-1970. He now resides in Litchfield.