Thursday, July 18, 2024

Harvard University-owned 47 Banks St. is torn down Nov. 25, 2005, after a fire inside killed an elderly resident. Neighbors worry that nearby Harvard construction was a cause for the fire and threatens them. (Photos: Marc Levy)

Harvard University-owned 47 Banks St. is torn down Nov. 25, 2005, after a fire inside killed an elderly resident. Neighbors worry that nearby Harvard construction was a cause for the fire and threatens them. (Photos: Marc Levy)

An elderly city woman died Friday in an early morning blaze that officials from the city fire department and Harvard University — which is building a $36 million dorm nearby — say is under investigation.

Ordinarily that would be uncontroversial.

But neighbors of the late Gladys Evans, 79, of 47 Banks St., say they think recent problems at the university’s dorm project, including two visits from the gas company in as many weeks, are too much of a coincidence to accept without a detailed explanation.

“It was an unfortunate incident,” said Ed LeFlore, mitigation manager for Harvard’s housing project, of the fire and Evans’ death. “We’re just trying to do our best to make it right and get everything back in order.”

Asked if there was a connection between the Harvard construction and the fire that killed Evans, LeFlore said there was “nothing” but that he couldn’t comment further.

He referred other questions to the fire department, which was even less forthcoming on causes but clear on the facts of the fire itself:

It was a three-alarmer that brought 10 engines, five ladder units and a hazardous-materials crew, including aid from Somerville, said Lester Bokuniewicz, deputy chief of the Cambridge Fire Department. The fire started in Evans’ first-floor apartment and got into the walls.

“Once fire gets in there, it’s tough to stop,” he said.

In fact, flames were stubbornly clinging to the frame of 47 Banks St. even as the Harvard-owned building was being demolished some eight hours later. The surrounding property is also owned by the university. Evans’ home sat at the end of a large parking lot for its mitigation department.

Neighbors say that if officials can’t comment because the matter is “under investigation,” the investigation had better be a thorough one.

In recent weeks, neighbors of Evans and the Harvard project have complained about such things as a smoking crane, tremors from Harvard’s massive excavation process and the school’s handling of the underground gas lines close to where the fire occurred.

“Somebody should look at the chain of events,” said Janet Macy, who lives at 67 Banks St.

Macy said she had gone to Mayor Michael Sullivan’s office just a week earlier to see Harvard’s mitigation plan, which is supposed to “lessen the impact” from the construction, but could not get the report or information on chemicals being used for “slurry excavation” that she worries can harm people with respiratory problems.

The next day, on Nov. 18, she said, a handful of residents met with and listed many concerns to LeFlore, the biggest being about the gas lines she and landlord Martin Annis believe are vulnerable to the contractor’s excavation equipment.

“They were banging on the metal plate on the street with the backhoe,” she recalled. “They were pounding it down; next thing you know the gas company is out there. We talked about it at the meeting of the 18th. They should recognize these pipes are fragile.”

As usual her comments fell on deaf ears, however, according to her and other neighbors.

“Four days later they had the gas company back,” she continued. “It was the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving; somebody smelled gas and called the gas company and the police.”

Then, less than two days later, on Friday, at around 4:56 a.m., she awoke to her worst fears: Evans’ home was on fire.

“I heard shouting,” she said. “I thought the gas company was back again.”

She looked out her window and saw fire spewing from the corner of Evans’ home nearest her own.

“There were flames bigger than me coming out of the back corner near the hole in the street,” she said, meaning where she had seen the gas company working just days before. “I had to get out of there … Honest to God, I’m afraid to be there. We have nowhere else to go.”

After the fire, her home’s gas, electricity and heat were out. Macy said she called Nstar but did not get a response.

She has been branded a chronic complainer of the “hot line” Harvard has set up for construction concerns, she said, but now that her neighbor is dead, she and other neighbors want a full reckoning.

“We are all nervous as ticks,” Macy said. “Maybe they will have a change of heart now.”

Remembering Evans

Even if just a terrible coincidence, it doesn’t change the fact that some disturbing things were happening to her own home in the days leading up to the fatal fire.

“Our pilot went out on Monday from the shaking,” she said. “Who knows if they will ever figure out what caused it. Nobody is looking at this stuff. I can’t raise anybody in the city who can stop it. But if there is a gas problem, shouldn’t you stop shaking the ground?”

Carol Bankard, at 8 Grant St., knew Gladys Evans, and said she saw the whole fire that killed her. Her account of it is consistent with Macy’s description:

“I saw smoke pouring out of the first floor,” Bankard said. “Two of her windows were lit up with a huge explosion.”

Bankard was horrified because she knew that Evans lived on the bottom southwest corner of the house.

“She was a dignified lovely lady,” Bankard said of Evans. “She had difficulty walking. She depended on her family.”

Se remembers how Evans would come out and wait to be picked up by a transportation service for senior citizens.

“She was always cheerful, polite. She would wait on her porch,” Bankard said.

Like Macy, Bankard wants the full investigation LeFlore said the city is undertaking. “A thorough investigation is in order. Not a summary investigation,” she said.

Officials from the fire department, Harvard and the medical examiner did not return calls seeking comment on the Evans’ death.

Whether or not the cause of the fire — directly or indirectly — can be attributed to Harvard construction, Macy said she cannot brook any more stonewalling:

“Let’s have some accountability,” she said. “A woman is dead.”

Marc Levy contributed to this report.