‘Suspicious’ fire at Kennedy Library remains under investigation

Probe continues into Monday fire: Another view of the damage to the JFK Library. Photo by Bill ForryProbe continues into Monday fire: Another view of the damage to the JFK Library. Photo by Bill Forry
Did a fast-moving fire at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum— which erupted around 3 p.m. Monday afternoon— have any connection to the deadly bomb attacks on Boylston Street that took place just minutes before?

It’s a question to which no definitive answer has been given at this point, but federal and local investigators continue to scour the presidential library for clues, even as much of the nation’s attention remains fixed on the carnage in the Back Bay.

The blaze, which scorched the library’s archival wing and caused significant damage to the structure, is being called “suspicious” by city government sources, who have been pressed to talk about a possible connection to the terror attack.

“It’s a suspicious fire with a particularly strong accelerant,” said one person briefed about the investigation within city government. “Police and fire are not ready to declare that the fire and the bombings are unrelated. Given the timing and the intensity of the fire, it's suspicious.”

JFK Library damage: A closer look.JFK Library damage: A closer look.The fire at the Columbia Point landmark burst out around 3 p.m. and prompted a swift response from Boston Fire crews, which quickly extinguished the blaze. The fire damaged a newer section of the building that is not close to the library’s main exhibit halls and not frequented by tourists. No one was hurt and visitors to the museum were evacuated in an orderly fashion. Eventually, buses were brought in to escort visitors away from the scene.

At the scene of the fire, Reporter staff observed fire crews and interviewed eyewitnesses who gave conflicting information about what they had seen and heard.

Tom Putnam, the director of the JFK Library, said that the incident seemed to have begun in a mechanical room near the archive section of the library. When asked, Putnam said that he did not think a “device” had been used.

Paul Yazbeck, a JFK Library employee, said he saw a small fire and heard what he defined as “definitely an explosion.”

Other people, who were there to tour the library, said they had not heard an explosion.

On Monday afternoon, in the immediate aftermath of the Back Bay attacks, Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis fueled speculation that the library had indeed been targeted as part of a wider plot when he included the incident as one of three he discussed at a press conference. Almost immediately, Boston Police officials began de-emphasizing the JFK Library fire in Tweets and other statements.

At the day’s second press conference, Davis clarified his earlier statement, saying that reports that it was connected to the marathon explosions "could be premature" and "may not be linked directly" to the Copley Square incidents.

Davis added that the JFK incident was either a fire or "an incendiary device."

On Monday, the Twitter account for the National Archives, which owns the JFK Library, seemed to reinforce the notion that the fire was not connected to the downtown attacks: "Fire at @JFKLibrary today. All people are safe. Fire investigation underway. No info on damage yet. Any tie-in is speculation."

At a Monday press conference with Gov. Deval Patrick, Davis was asked about any victims at the JFK Library incident. "None that we know of," he said.

By Tuesday morning, Gov. Patrick emphasized that there were two— and only two— bombs involved in the Monday incidents. There was no mention of the Kennedy Library at a morning press conference and reporters did not ask about the incident, focusing all attention on the investigation into the deadly blasts in town.

Rachel Flor, the director of communications for the JFK Library, said on Wednesday that the library hoped to have further information about the cause of the fire soon. The library, she said, would remain closed until further notice as the investigation continued. She said that there “minimal damage” to the library’s collection, but added that there was "significant" damage to the archival wing, which was attached to the original library building in 2011.