On this day in 1975, Boston Herald photographer Stanley Forman captured a dramatic moment on film, of a mother and her goddaughter falling from a faulty fire escape during the Boston Fire of 1975. The photo was printed in major newspapers around the world, inviting hostile reader reaction—and prompted cities across the country to improve their fire safety laws.
It was the middle of summer, 22 July 1975, and Forman was about to leave the Boston Herald offices for the day when a call came in about a fire that had broken out in one of the city’s older neighbourhoods of Victorian row houses. Forman rushed out of the newsroom, following one of the fire engines to the scene. He ran to the back of the building, where he heard residents were trapped on a fire escape. When he looked up, Forman saw a woman and child on the fire escape, leaning as far as they could away from the heat of the burning building behind them. A firefighter named Bob O’Neil had used a fire escape on the front of the building to climb onto the roof, where he viewed the pair from above. He lowered himself onto the rear fire escape to rescue them and Forman began snapping pictures of what he assumed would be a routine rescue. Other firefighters erected a ladder, which O’Neil was preparing to step on, instructing the woman to hand the baby to him when he did. But as O’Neil reached out for the ladder, the fire escape gave way and the woman and her child began falling from 15 metres in the air. As they fell, Forman instinctively began shooting photographs, then, just as instinctively, turned away as they approached the ground. “It dawned on me what was happening and I didn’t want to see them hit the ground,” he later recounted to the press. “I can still remember turning around and shaking.” When he turned back, Forman learned that the woman had broken the child’s fall. She died later that night, but the child survived.
When Forman’s horrific photo of the woman and child tumbling from the fire escape, smoke billowing above them, was published in the Boston Herald the next morning, they were picked up and published around the world, stirring controversy. Readers were disgusted that Forman would shoot such a picture and that the Herald would run it, especially as the woman died later that same day. Forman said he was never bothered by the controversy—and his photography led to more conversations about fire safety, prompting readers to check their fire escapes and city officials around the country to write new fire safety laws and codes to better protect their residents.
In 1976 Forman won a Pulitzer Prize for his powerful photo, an unforgettable image that revolutionised fire safety in many cities across the US.