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June 10, 2017

Fire Escape Collapse: A Mother and Her Daughter Falling from a Fire Escape, 1975. Only One Survived...

On July 22, 1975 a fire raged in one of the apartment buildings on Marlborough Street in Boston, Massachusetts. Nineteen-year old Diana Bryant and her two-year-old goddaughter, Tiare Jones were trapped and awaiting rescue on a fire escape.

One firefighter, Robert O’Neil, was shielding Bryant and Jones from the flames as a ladder approached, ready to lower them to safety. O’Neil would be the first to step onto the ladder and instructed Diana Bryant to pass Tiare Jones to him once he was in place. Robert O’Neil had just begun to pull himself onto the ladder when the fire escape collapsed, taking Diana and Tiare down along with it.

Fire Escape Collapse, also known as Fire on Marlborough Street, is a black-and-white photograph by Stanley Forman which received the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1976.

Diana Bryant died from her injuries but Tiare, who had fallen on Diana’a body survived the fall. ‘Fire Escape Collapse’ is one in a series of photos taken by Stanley Forman, photographer for the Boston Herald, at the scene of the fire. When the photo was originally released in his publication there was an overwhelmingly hostile reaction from the public. As the pictures quickly spread around the world, media was accused of pandering to sensationalism and invading Diana Bryant’s privacy.

Despite the controversy surrounding the photo, the series by Stanley Forman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1976 and additionally, was named The World Press Photo of The Year. It also prompted the city of Boston, as well as many other cities across the United States, to revise laws on fire escape safety.

Today, the photo is still used by fire safety groups to promote their efforts. In 2005, photographer Stanley Forman gave his account of the tragic events he witnessed on that day in an interview with BBC:

“It was 22 July 1975. I was about to leave the offices of the Boston Herald for the day. A call came in about a fire in one of the city's older sections of Victorian row houses. I rushed to the house and followed one of the engines to the fire. I ran to the back of the building, because on the way there they kept yelling for a ladder truck because there were people trapped in the building on the fire escape.

“I ran to the back of the building and when I looked up there was a woman and a child on the fire escape and they were basically leaning at the furthest point from the building because of the heat of the fire behind them.”

When the fire escape collapsed.

In the meantime, a firefighter called Bob O'Neil had climbed on to the front of the building on the roof and saw the pair on the fire escape. He lowered himself on to the fire escape to rescue them.

“I took a position where I could photograph what I thought was an impending routine rescue. The ladder went up to pick them up - they were about 50ft (15m) up. Mr O'Neill had just told Diana Bryant that he was going to step onto the ladder and asked her to hand the baby to him.”

Because of the heat of the fire behind, Bryant and Jones were “basically leaning” at the point farthest from the building.

Mr O'Neil was reaching out for the ladder when suddenly the fire escape gave way.

“I was shooting pictures as they were falling - then I turned away. It dawned on me what was happening and I didn't want to see them hit the ground. I can still remember turning around and shaking.

“It transpired that I wouldn't have seen them hit the ground as they fell behind a fence where the bins were. When I did turn around I didn't see them but I saw the firefighter still clinging onto the ladder with one arm, like a monkey, with all his gear. He hoisted himself back up the fire escape to safety.”

The tillerman of the first fire engine to arrive at the scene, Robert O’Neill, asked Bryant to lift the toddler Jones to him on the roof, but Bryant was unable to do so and O’Neill jumped down to help before the ladder could reach them..

They say the woman broke the child's fall. The woman died later that night.

“At the time, I didn't know that the picture was going to be so big or have such an impact. When I started looking at the negatives I was looking at the rescue picture, where they were holding on to each other. I didn't even look at the next frame, I didn't know exactly what I'd got. I knew I had shot them coming down, I didn't realise how dramatic it was until I had developed the film.”

Bryant sustained multiple head and body injuries and died hours later. Jones survived the fall as she had landed on Bryant’s body, softening the impact.

The picture was first published in the Boston Herald and then picked up and published in newspapers all over the world. There was much debate about showing such a horrific picture.

“I was never bothered by the controversy. When you think about it, I don't think it was that horrific. The woman at the time was not deceased; we didn't show a dead person on the front page. She did die, which is a horrible thing. I didn't think it was that bad, but then I am the photographer, so I'm biased.”

The baby survived because she landed on the woman’s body.

Any time there are stories about fire safety issues or issues such as those people went through with the hurricane in New Orleans, it wakes people up.

“My photograph prompted people to go out and check their fire escapes and ushered in a law that meant that the owner of the property is responsible for fire-escape safety. It was also used in many fire-safety pamphlets for many years.

“Thirty years later it's nice to know that I did the right thing. I haven't seen anything like it since. I've seen pictures that I wish I'd made but I haven't seen anything as dramatic as that, and I've seen some pretty good pictures.”

When you say a picture tells a thousand words, this one certainly told 10,000.




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