Widgets Magazine
MIGHTY HISTORY
Matt Fratus

The legend of Ed Loder: Boston Fire Department's most decorated firefighter

The call rang out in the firehouse of Rescue Company 1 reporting a jumper at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Ed Loder, a 41-year-old firefighter with 20 years on the job, threw on his gear and pulled himself into the driver's seat of their fire engine. The sirens wailed as they sped down the narrow city streets of Back Bay, an affluent neighborhood in Boston. Loder steered the rig in front of the hotel, jumped out, and was handed a set of binoculars from the hazmat truck.

Against the dark sky he located a distressed woman on the 16th floor, sitting with her feet dangling over the ledge of a windowsill. A negotiation team of the Boston Police Department pleaded with the woman from inside the hotel room, but she wasn't complying. Loder soon joined the other firefighters on the roof.


"We could look over the edge of the roof and see her, but she couldn't see us because she wasn't looking up," Loder told Coffee or Die Magazine in a recent interview. "She was looking in the room and talking to the cops."

The woman had a razor in her hand. This rescue wasn't going to be easy.

Boston firefighter Ed Loder talking to other firefighters on the ground while a building is ablaze. Photo courtesy of Ed Loder.

While other firefighters searched for a viable anchor point, Loder tugged ropes through the carabiner on his bumblebee suit. The nearby ductwork was unusable, but a window through an electrical structure on the roof was perfect. Loder tied in his line.

Their plan was to have the police distract the woman long enough for Loder to complete the rescue.

"They got her attention and the minute she looked inside of the room, I went off the roof," Loder told Coffee or Die. "When I went off the parapet I naturally swung and kicked her in the side and she went into the room."

The police officers immediately jumped on top of her and placed handcuffs around her wrists to prevent her from harming herself or anyone else. Loder, however, was left swinging outside and hollered for one of the officers to pull him in too.

A newspaper clipping about the incident at the Ritz-Carlton, showing Boston firefighter Ed Loder after he made a daring rescue of a suicidal woman. Photo courtesy of Ed Loder.

The Boston Globe would describe the heroic nighttime rescue that occurred on May 30, 1990, as "Mission Impossible." Bill Brett, a Globe photographer, was a witness alongside 300 other spectators on the ground. "I never expected someone to come down and knock her in the window," Brett said. "He drops down, and boom, she's inside! Down where I was, everybody cheered; the crowd clapped and yelled; it was unbelievable, like a movie."

For this action, the Board of Merit awarded Loder the Walter Scott Medal for Valor, the second highest in the fire service. But as he puts it, it was just another day on the job at Rescue Company 1.

The War Years

Ed Loder grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had long admired the World War II veterans who took jobs with the fire department down the street from his home. In fact, he wanted to be them.

The Boston Fire Department is rich with tradition and history that date all the way back to 1631. America's first publicly funded fire department saw numerous innovations over the next handful of centuries. The first leather fire hoses were imported from England in 1799; all fire engines were equipped with aerial ladders by 1876; and radios were installed in all fireboats, cars, and rescue companies by 1925.

A train collision that occurred in the Back Bay of Boston in 1990. Photo courtesy of Ed Loder.

In 1970, when 21-year-old Fire Fighter Edward Loder was appointed to Ladder Company 2 in East Boston, the Boston Fire Department was in the midst of the "War Years." Between 1963 and 1983, there was at least one major fire every 13.6 hours. On average, a fire company reacted to as many as five to 10 fires in one tour of duty. Loder joined the fire service to be in on the action, and like the majority of other sparkies rising through the ranks, that's exactly what he got.

Over the next decade, Loder responded to a variety of emergency situations as a part of Ladder Company 2, and later Ladder Company 15 in the Back Bay. He was there for a big oil farm fire in Orient Heights and a ship fire from Bethlehem Steel, but the most memorable for him was the 1800 Club, partly owned by former Red Sox player Ken Harrelson. The entertainment complex along the waterfront burned to the ground, with an estimated loss of $1 million.

Even some calls he didn't participate in had an impact. After ending his shift on the morning of June 17, 1972, Loder and his wife went out in the afternoon, only to be stopped by a familiar face.

"We ran into this cop that I knew and he said to me, 'What are you doing here?'" Loder remembered. "He had this look on his face that I'd never seen before."

The seven-story Hotel Vendome had caught fire and collapsed on top of Ladder Company 15's truck. Nine firefighters were inside the hotel, and tragically, all nine lost their lives.

Boston firefighter Ed Loder, kneeling second to left from Pickles, the "Dandy Drillers" Dalmatian. Photo courtesy of Ed Loder.

The following year he responded to the worst plane crash in Boston's history. Delta Airlines Flight 723 hit a seawall while trying to land at Logan International Airport. All 89 passengers and crew were killed.

"I remember saying to myself, 'Geez, is this what the fire service is all about?' It didn't bother me in a way, but it was like a shock and awe after a little bit, and you adapted to it," Loder said. "I said, 'I don't think there is anything else on this job that I could come across that's probably going to bother me.'"

The days and nights spent on the job weren't all tragic or intense. Every October throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Boston Fire Department raised awareness through Fire Prevention Week with a squad dubbed the "Dandy Drillers" performing high-wire aerial exercises around the city.

"We took two 100-foot aerial ladders, we put them together at the tips, we tied them together up at the top, and hung a 150-foot piece of rope down the middle of it," Loder told Coffee or Die. "I used to do the upside-down no-hands exercise. We had platforms attached to these aerial ladders probably 20 feet in the air, and we'd jump off of that into the life nets. We would also have 10 guys on each ladder that would hook into the ladder and lean out with no hands. I understand it was the only type of thing in the country."

Boston City Hospital Rescue

After 12 or 13 years with various companies, Loder transferred to Rescue Company 1, where his reputation grew to legendary status. At one rescue, a deranged man was on the roof of Boston City Hospital. The man had hurled several brick-sized boulders at pedestrians standing on the sidewalk and at cars driving by on Massachusetts Avenue.

"If you come out, I'm gonna jump," the man told the cops as they tried to talk him off the ledge.

Ladder Company 15, Loder's old team, had arrived just as Rescue Company 1 pulled up to the scene. "Throw your aerial up on the side of the building," Loder told them. "That way there if they chase him over here, he will see the aerial and he'll go back."

Boston firefighter Ed Loder, right, was awarded the Walter Scott Medal for Valor and four Roll of Merit awards, including one for a water rescue in the Charles River. Photo courtesy of Ed Loder.

Loder took charge and ordered Ladder Company 17 to be posted on the other side to sandwich the man in between.

In the meantime, Loder went up the aerial ladder to get a better view of the rooftop and the distraught man.

"I'm gonna jump," the man said once more.

"I looked at him and said, 'What are you gonna do that for, you're going to make a mess down there if you jump,'" Loder said.

The man ran to the edge only a few feet from where Loder was positioned. "We've been here for an hour playing with you — it's lunch time, I'm hungry and want to go get a sandwich. How about you go inside the hospital and get something to eat?"

A screenshot from the Boston Globe newspaper showing Boston firefighter Ed Loder holding a man by his shirt with his fingertips while suspended 100 feet in the air.

"Fuck you," the man hollered, as he climbed over the side and proceeded down a conduit pipe attached to the hospital building.

Arm by arm, the man took off his coat, threw it to the ground, and said for the final time, "I'm jumping!"

From the side of the aerial ladder, Loder reached out with both his arms and grabbed the man by his shirt. Dangling 100 feet in the air, Loder screamed at the aerial operator to lower the ladder.

"Instead of lowering the aerial, he hits the rotation on the turntable and slams me and the guy in the side of the building," Loder said, explaining that the operator likely panicked during the split-second action. "He dropped the aerial down to maybe 10 to 15 feet off another roof that was there, and I let him go. I couldn't hang on to him anymore."

Liar’s Club

Paul Christian, left, Boston fire commissioner between 2001 and 2006, and Ed Loder wearing Liar's Club golf shirts. Photo by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die Magazine.

A row of cars with the doors ripped off and the metal frames crumpled are remnants of a previous fire academy training class. There in the parking lot sits a small and unassuming office trailer known as The Liar's Club. Since 1968, retired Boston firefighters have been meeting here every Wednesday morning to share stories, reminisce, and — sometimes — tell a few lies.

Driving up to the Liar's Club in Loder's pickup, we didn't get very far before the first young fire captain approached the driver's-side window, wanting to shake Loder's hand. With some 43 years on the job, Loder is the most decorated firefighter in Boston Fire's nearly 400-year history. Not that he boasts about the glory.

Inside, beyond the coffee and donuts, an old retiree says, "You know he's one of the most decorated in the fire service?" while Loder rolls his eyes in the background.

In the back room, nicknamed "Division 2" in homage to the two districts between which the city is split, I listen as Paul Christian, the former Boston fire commissioner, shares a story about the old days.

An infamous photograph snapped by a Boston newspaper photographer of Ed Loder wearing Sperrys on the job. Photo courtesy of Ed Loder.

"Today they have to put bunker gear on, put the boots on, put the hood on, put this on, put that on, get up on the truck, put their seatbelts on," Christian said, in reference to the new OSHA regulations. "When I came on the fire department, you had to run to the piece [fire truck] while you jumped on with your coat while you're going down the street. You're putting on your belt, and the best you could do was kick your shoes off and put your boots on."

Sometimes they forgot — and a Boston news photographer was there to snap the picture to prove it. "I get a call from headquarters and they wanted to know who the guy was with the Sperrys on," Loder said and laughed. "Of course everybody said that nobody knew nothing, but it was me."

Loder just celebrated his 72nd birthday and continues to give back to the fire service, teaching classes to the next generation. All the medals and the accolades later, Loder maintains that he was just doing his job.

This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.