book review

“3000 Degrees” by Sean Flynn

Flynn, Sean. 3000 Degrees 
Warner, 2002
Hardcover, 245 pages
ISBN 0-446-52831-5


On December 3, 1999, six firemen died fighting a fire in an abandoned storage warehouse in Worcester, Massachusetts. 3000 Degrees tells the story of that fire, of the six who died and their families, and of several Worcester firefighters who survived that night.

Like Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm, Flynn begins his coverage by introducing us to the six central characters and their families. Reading the early chapters is difficult knowing beforehand, as we do, that these men will die and these families will suffer. In the latter part of the book, describing the process of fighting the fire, Flynn alternates sections about the fire with explanations of how the firemen’s families heard about the fire and, finally, about the six deaths.

Flynn’s descriptive abilities bring the events to life. Here, for example, is a description of what firefighters call a rollover:

It started on the back wall, above the fire he’d been inching toward, an orange ball expanding, erupting, blowing across the ceiling. It spread to the walls on either side, covered the width of the room, and spun forward, flames biting into the smoke like a thresher into wheat, spears of fire curling and weaving a few feet above Mike’s head. It moved as fast as a breaking wave, washing across the length of the storeroom to the wall blocked off by the door, then plunged to the floor, covering all that ground in three seconds, maybe two.

(p. 7)

The book’s title signifies the viciousness of the inferno in the warehouse: “The temperature inside, in the belly of the building, had soared to 3,000 degrees, almost twice as hot as a crematorium” (p. 157). “Bodies are cremated at 1,800. Cast iron melts at 2,800” (p. 226).

Early in the book Flynn describes the attraction of fighting fires:

a working fire promised at least the chance of action, and that is what a certain breed of firefighter craved. […] They would feel more alive when confronted by the possibility of death, surrounded by it, threatened by it. They would not be afraid but only aware, in the same way that an alpinist, cramponed to a rock high above a thin and frigid void, was aware of gravity. The challenge was neither reckless nor foolhardy […] but it was enthralling. Every nerve tingled, a tremble that started in the primitive stem of the brain and skittered, like electricity through bare copper wire, into the arms, the legs, the chest, the gut. 

(p. 46)

But once he begins narrating the events of the night of the fire, he wisely refrains from this kind of analysis and concentrates on the actions of men trained to do a dangerous job. One of the actions that Flynn narrates straightforwardly was the decision to abandon the search for the six men missing inside the burning building.

If you know any firefighters, give them a hug and a pat on the back.

Special thanks to my brother Henry, a firefighter and fire marshal, who loaned me his well-worn copy of this book and urged me to read it.

© 2004 by Mary Daniels Brown

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