A mother and her daughter falling from a fire escape, 1975

Fire Escape Collapse, also known as Fire on Marlborough Street, is a black-and-white photograph by Stanley Forman which received the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1976.
Fire Escape Collapse, also known as Fire on Marlborough Street, is a black-and-white photograph by Stanley Forman which received the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1976.
A nineteen-year-old and her two-year-old niece and goddaughter are hurled off a collapsing fire escape during an apartment fire on Marlborough Street. The two waited with firefighter Robert O’Neil for a rescue ladder to reach them. As the firefighter climbed onto the rescue ladder, the fire escape collapsed under their feet and they fell to the ground five floors below. The woman was killed but the child survived, her fall cushioned by the woman’s body. It’s tragic, going from the hope of immediate rescue to a deadly fall in seconds.

The photograph, which is part of a series, shows 19-year-old Diana Bryant and her 2-year-old goddaughter Tiare Jones falling from the collapsed fire escape of a burning apartment building on Marlborough Street in Boston on July 22, 1975. The fire escape at the fifth floor collapsed as a turntable ladder on a fire engine was being extended to pick up the two at the height of approximately 50 feet (15 meters). The photo was taken with a motorized camera and also shows falling potted plants. Other photos of the series show Bryant and Jones waiting for a turntable ladder and the moment of fire escape’s collapse with both victims on it.

The tillerman of the first fire engine to arrive at the scene, Robert O'Neill, asked Bryant to lift the toddler Jones to him on the roof, but Bryant was unable to do so and O'Neill jumped down to help before the ladder could reach them.
The tillerman of the first fire engine to arrive at the scene, Robert O’Neill, asked Bryant to lift the toddler Jones to him on the roof, but Bryant was unable to do so and O’Neill jumped down to help before the ladder could reach them.
Because of the heat of the fire behind, Bryant and Jones were
Because of the heat of the fire behind, Bryant and Jones were “basically leaning” at the point farthest from the building.
Bryant sustained multiple head and body injuries and died hours later. Jones survived the fall as she had landed on Bryant's body, softening the impact.
Bryant sustained multiple head and body injuries and died hours later. Jones survived the fall as she had landed on Bryant’s body, softening the impact.

“Fire Escape Collapse” pictures were taken by photographer Stanley Forman. This is how he described the accident:

It was 22 July 1975. I was about to leave the offices of the Boston Herald for the day. A call came in about a fire in one of the city’s older sections of Victorian row houses. I rushed to the house and followed one of the engines to the fire. I ran to the back of the building, because on the way there they kept yelling for a ladder truck because there were people trapped in the building on the fire escape.

I ran to the back of the building and when I looked up there was a woman and a child on the fire escape and they were basically leaning at the furthest point from the building because of the heat of the fire behind them. In the meantime, a firefighter called Bob O’Neil had climbed on to the front of the building on the roof and saw the pair on the fire escape. He lowered himself on to the fire escape to rescue them.

I took a position where I could photograph what I thought was an impending routine rescue. The ladder went up to pick them up – they were about 50ft (15m) up. Mr. O’Neill had just told Diana Bryant that he was going to step onto the ladder and asked her to hand the baby to him. Mr. O’Neil was reaching out for the ladder when suddenly the fire escape gave way. I was shooting pictures as they were falling – then I turned away. It dawned on me what was happening and I didn’t want to see them hit the ground. I can still remember turning around and shaking.

It transpired that I wouldn’t have seen them hit the ground as they fell behind a fence where the bins were. When I did turn around I didn’t see them but I saw the firefighter still clinging onto the ladder with one arm, like a monkey, with all his gear. He hoisted himself back up the fire escape to safety. They say the woman broke the child’s fall. The woman died later that night.

When the fire escape collapsed.
When the fire escape collapsed.
The baby survived because she landed on the woman’s body.
The baby survived because she landed on the woman’s body.

The photograph won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography as well as World Press Photo of the Year. It was first published in the Boston Herald and then in newspapers around the world to much hostile reader reaction. The media was charged with invading the privacy of Diana Bryant and pandering to sensationalism. The picture also prompted officials in Boston to rewrite its laws regarding fire escape safety. Fire safety groups around the country used the photo to promote similar efforts in other cities.

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19 comments
  • The photo’s are all taken within a couple of second by the same camera….so location and angles didn’t chnage. “he fire escape at the fifth floor collapsed as a turntable ladder was extending to pick up the two at the height of approximately 50 feet (15 meters).” To be honest, I feel that the ladder came down on the hand railing and accidentally cause this accident. Look at the woman’s hand placement and the angle left to right of that hand railing comparison to the angle of the roof. they are nearly in line with each other. Also, look at the ladder tip position in correspondence to the man’s knee on the roof. Then again, as the ladder tip is down to where his ankle is. Now look back to where the woman’s hand was on the railing. The ladder is now lower than the railing that the woman was holding on to. The ladder has come down that distance in a matter of a split second, given the body actions of the falling people.

    I don’t feel that the fire escape was at fault here. Clearly it was able to hold up 2 adults and a child quite easily. The changed laws that came out of this agood of course.

    However, somebody ought to set the record straight here and man up to what really happened. Even a layman can see that this is what happened and not this facade of nonaccountability on the FD ladder operator.

    “the fire escape at the fifth floor collapsed as a turntable ladder was extending to pick up the two at the height of approximately 50 feet (15 meters).”

    Perhaps some piss poor journalism reporting or the manner orf which it is worded…..it still does not point a finger to the reason the “Fire Escape Collapsed”.

    But the photos clearly show what happened with the ladder and the railing.

    Pfffff! The way it written…they might as well say that it was they time of day caused its collapse.

  • “The photographs were awarded the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography ”
    That’s all fine and dandy Mr. Pulitzer Prize and your award-winning news station / paper, but when the truth isn’t being told by the NEWS players…what good is the news if they don’t tell the truth. Propaganda machines at best.
    Be mindful of what you take as truth! I do, and this “the fire escape at the fifth floor collapsed as a turntable ladder was extending to pick up the two at the height of approximately 50 feet (15 meters).” is not truth. The fire escape was not the fault…the ladder was.

    A fire escape collapsed because a turntable ladder was extended into it, is how that article ought to have been written up.

    • That isn’t what happened, Don. The ladder did not precipitate the collapse of the fire escape, the fire escape was improperly secured and maintained. The heat of the fire caused enough expansion for the moorings of the fire escape to fail. The ladder is going over and onto the roof of the building. The ladder wasn’t the reason the balcony fell, it was because the fire escape was too poorly secured. Just because it held the fireman, the woman and the baby momentarily does not mean it was necessarily going to do that in perpetuity, especially when you notice that there is nothing securing the handrail of the fire escape to the wall of the building. There was a reason why more stringent requirements were enacted solve the problem of poorly affixed external fire escapes to building walls, instead of the protocols for angling a rescue ladder near a balcony that has a fire with visible flames and smoke below.

    • Judging by the photos. The firefighters was going for the man on the roof and sat the ladder down at a attempt to rescue everyone simultaneously and accidentally broke the fire escape.

  • It’s a nice story to say the toddler survived because she fell on her godmother’s body, but nobody witnessed impact. I know this story well. Nobody knows what actually happened at impact. It’s a nice story for the toddler at least, even without irresponsible presumptive embellishment.

    • Not sure why you say no one witnessed the impact when the photographer was right there…and all the fire fighters…and I am sure many people gathered to watch the fire. Plenty of people there to witness what happened. Its a horrible story for the toddler to grow up thinking she only survived by landing on her dead mother’s body! Talk about nightmares…:/

      • Julie, you clearly didn’t read everything above.

        The Photographer explained that he turned away to avoid seeing them hit the ground, but then realized he wouldn’t see them hit the ground anyway.

        “It transpired that I wouldn’t have seen them hit the ground as they fell behind a fence where the bins were. When I did turn around I didn’t see them”

        So again, nobody knows what happened at impact.

    • There were several witnesses. Just because the photographer did not see the child hit the ground does not mean nobody did.

  • Nord Land – you’re right the ladder was going to the roof – but why??! The firefighter wouldn’t have been able to climb on to it. Think about it. What was the fireman doing putting the ladder to the roof? Again, look carefully at the angle of the ladder heading towards the roof and the height of the fire escape. Lives wasted by the wrong choice.

    • The guy on the fire escape had NO control over the ladder; the engineer of the ladder truck did. Anticipating a heavier load on the ladder, he put it on the roof, because the fire escape would’nt be able to support the weight of the three, plus the ladder.

  • Found this story by searching the picture on google … i find it so sad that from the apparent safe rescue it all turned to tragedy in just a few seconds …

  • This picture and story has haunted me since it first happened. How did this fire start? I heard it was the landlord. I never knew the truth. I always prayed that Diana never felt the impact. I hoped she just blacked out before hand. Also if it was set on purpose , I am curious what the punishment was. It can not be severe enough! Keith

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