Cambridge fire forces 7 MIT affiliates out of their homes

Fire damaged 16 buildings, no deaths or serious injuries

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Fire spread in East Cambridge residential area Saturday afternoon.
Anna Maria Vargas

A massive fire engulfed a large swath of an East Cambridge residential area Saturday, Dec. 3. The fire damaged 16 buildings around Berkshire St. and displaced over 125 residents, a number of MIT students among them.

The first alarm was dispatched Saturday afternoon at the corner of Berkshire and Vandine Streets, according to the Cambridge Fire Department Twitter feed. The Boston Globe reported that the fire originated in a three-decker home under renovation at 35-37 Berkshire St.

By nighttime, a total of ten alarms had been dispatched and the City of Cambridge, along with the American Red Cross, had opened a shelter for people affected by the fire at the War Memorial Recreation Center on Cambridge St. Firefighters from nearly 20 communities contributed to combating the conflagration.

Despite the enormous scale of the fire and the rapidity of its spread, only a few people were injured, and no one was killed.

The buildings damaged were mostly three-decker homes typical of Boston-area residential neighborhoods. The former Saint Patrick’s Church building, which had been converted into affordable housing units, was also damaged.

Grant Falkenburg G was in his apartment a few blocks from the fire while it was spreading. Though his apartment was undamaged and he suffered only Internet outages and a brief power loss, he expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of information regarding the fire when it first started. “I was quite scared when I first found out there was a blazing fire in the neighborhood and didn’t know where it was,” Falkenburg wrote in an email to The Tech. “I feel like some kind of alert would have been helpful.”

Not all MIT affiliates escaped from the fire with their residences intact.

Andrei Barbu, a postdoctoral associate in CSAIL, was volunteering in Puerto Rico at the time of the fire, but saw his apartment burning on the news. Though the house in which he lived was burned and water-damaged, the fire was stopped before it reached his apartment, and most of his belongings were salvageable. Still, the structure has been rendered uninhabitable for at least a year.

“Much worse than losing your home is discovering that you don’t know where you’re going to sleep tomorrow,” Barbu wrote in an email to The Tech. “Hotels are extremely expensive, even Airbnbs aren’t affordable.”

MIT has helped to alleviate some of the stress of house-hunting for Barbu by allowing him to stay in a single-occupancy room in Tang Hall free of charge until he has found a new place to live.

“MIT has been extremely generous and I want to express my gratitude,” Barbu wrote. “I can’t describe how good it feels to have a roof over your head and a warm place to sleep after you’re left with nothing but a bag full of clothes.”

In total, six graduate students and their partners moved into Tang Hall and one family moved into Westgate Apartments, Matthew Bauer, director of communications for the MIT Division of Student Life, wrote in an email to The Tech. Some of these students have already moved from from campus housing back into their old residences or into other accommodations, according to Bauer.

Ana Maria Vargas ’19 saw the smoke from her room in McCormick Hall at around 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and decided to investigate. When she arrived at the scene of the fire, police had already cordoned off the area. She saw fire engines arriving and firefighters setting up their equipment, as well as people standing in the street in pajamas clutching pets or belongings.

“There was generally an air of tension and worry,” Vargas said in an interview with The Tech. “I felt so helpless. … If you’re a firefighter, there’s something you can do. … As a bystander, all you can do is watch and get out of the way.”

Soon after the fire, Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons set up a relief fund to help affected residents. The online portion of the fund, hosted on crowdfunding website GoFundMe, reached its $500,000 goal in less than three days.  

In an email to the MIT community, Provost Martin Schmidt, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz encouraged students and faculty to contribute to the fund. The email mentioned that MIT would make an “institutional donation,” though it did not specify the amount.