SWAMPSCOTT — Fifty years after firefighters rushed to a blaze on Puritan Road, James Samms still remembers his thoughts as flames engulfed the New Ocean House Hotel.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” he said.
A general alarm struck at 9:53 p.m. on May 8, 1969 sent Swampscott firefighters to the sprawling seaside hotel for a “fire in front lobby.” Fire crews converging on the 500-room hotel knew they had a battle on their hands even as they strung water hoses across the parking lot and Chief Walter Champion called for reinforcements from surrounding communities.
The New Ocean House was weeks away from starting its summer season and the only people in the hotel — a reservations clerk and three kitchen workers — quickly fled the building even as firefighters in their heavy coats and helmets entered it.
Samms, Capt. Joe Braccio and firefighter Robert Pierro climbed onto a hotel garage roof and trained a water cannon on the flames.
Bill Hyde, who later became the town’s fire chief, activated a Puritan Road hydrant while Fran Delano, 31 at the time and a department veteran, quickly realized flames threatened fire engines parked underneath the hotel’s big entrance roof.
“We looked at the portico and said, ‘We’ve got to do something,'” Delano said.
Firefighters drove the trucks to safety even as fire consumed the entranceway roof. The blaze attracted onlookers whose numbers swelled as fire department after department across the North Shore heeded Champion’s call for mutual aid.
The New Ocean House fire logbook on display in Town Hall lists crews from 25 communities as far as North Andover converging on the scene. Hyde credits Swampscott firefighter Eddie Lotti with rushing from his sick bed to join another firefighter at the station where they called in other fire departments for help.
“It was such a big task it took two people. They did yeoman’s work that night,” Hyde said.
Fire Capt. James Champion, the chief’s brother, made his way across the hotel’s roof. One of his feet went through the wood and he had shingles up to his knee.
Firefighters formed a human chain across the roof to tug Champion out and assist him to safety.
Firefighter Peter Branden lost a race against flames consuming the hotel’s second floor and dove onto a ladder Delano extended to him. Branden injured one of his legs and arms as he collided with Delano at the ladder’s base. Delano sustained a back injury.
“I was out of business for three weeks,” he said.
Flames devoured the hotel as fire crews sent water jetting into the flames with hoses even sucking water out of the hotel swimming pool. The battle of firefighters versus flames officially ended at 2:48 p.m. on May 10. But the fight to save the New Ocean House was over long before the last ember got extinguished.
“They knew they were going to lose it as soon as they got there,” Hyde said.
The Daily Evening Item headline on May 9 read: “A sad farewell to an opulent era.”
The New Ocean House was built in 1888 after fire destroyed the original hotel built in the 1870s. Local historian Louis Gallo worked as a golf caddy at the hotel as a teenager and recalled its formal dining room with a separate room where children ate and the guests who rented cottages for a summer stay with their pets.
“The atmosphere, the attitude of the place spelled out one word: sophistication. It was amazing,” Gallo said.
Although it underwent a makeover in the mid 1960s, the New Ocean House and other big resort hotels of its age were already doomed by travel options Americans embraced in the 1960s, including jet travel and interstate highway trips.
Gallo worked with town fire Chief Kevin Breen and retired Capt. Kevin Thompson to set up the Town Hall display with the logbook describing the fire’s evolution, including Delano’s injury, and dramatic photographs of the blaze and its aftermath.
The fire’s exact origin and cause remain a mystery.
“No official cause was ever determined that we are aware of. I do not believe that it was suspicious,” Breen said.
But work underway in the hotel on the day of the fire, perhaps a plumber’s torch used in one of its crawlspaces, was a culprit, said Samms.
Samms retired from the fire department as a captain in 1989 and, at the age of 76, works as the town electrical inspector. His memories of the fire merge with his recollections of attending his fifth Saugus High School reunion in the New Ocean House in 1965.
“It was a hell of a place to have a party,” he said.