Saturday, 2:15 PM
Firehouse to be dedicated on site of deadly Worcester blaze
(Globe file photo/1999)
Hoses doused the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse building during a five-alarm fire on Dec. 3, 1999.
By Globe Staff
A new 15,000-square-foot fire station will be dedicated this afternoon in Worcester on the site of a 1999 warehouse inferno that killed six firefighters.
The five-alarm blaze on Dec. 3, 1999, was sparked by a candle tipped over in a homeless couple's makeshift shelter in the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse building. While searching for people trapped inside, the six firemen became disoriented in the maze-like building and were overwhelmed by heat and choking black smoke. The deaths sparked a national outcry, prompting President Bill Clinton to speak at their memorial service.
The redbrick, three-bay Franklin Street Fire Station cost $8 million. The dedication at 3 p.m. is expected to be attended by a host of public officials, including Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray, who is the former Worcester mayor.
The six firefighters killed in the blaze were Paul A. Brotherton, 41; Joseph T. McGuirk, 38; James F. Lyons 3d, 34; Lieutenant Thomas E. Spencer, 42; Timothy P. Jackson, 51, and Jeremiah M. Lucey, 38. Here is the story that ran on the front page of the Globe on Dec. 4, 1999:
2 FIREFIGHTERS DEAD, 4 MISSING
SIX ARE TRAPPED IN WORCESTER WAREHOUSE FIRE
By Mac Daniel And Francie Latour, Globe Staff
WORCESTER - Two Worcester firefighters were killed and four others were missing and presumed dead yesterday after walls of flame trapped them inside an abandoned warehouse during a blaze whose origin was suspicious, fire officials said last night.
The victims are the city's first firefighting deaths in at least three decades, and one of the worst such tragedies in state history.
The five-alarm fire at the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse building at 266 Franklin St., in the heart of the city, began around 4 p.m. and quickly escalated, according to State Fire Marshal Steven M. Coan.
As families of the missing were called to a nearby church, fire officials held out desperate, vanishing hopes late last night that there might be survivors.
"We never know what could happen," said Worcester Deputy Fire Chief Gerard Dio. "You never know."
Dio called the fire suspicious because firefighters initially fought two fires that appeared to have begun separately. He said when the first companies arrived about 6:30 p.m., they thought there were two homeless people inside and about 20 firefighters went in to look for them.
Dio said the first two firefighters reported missing in the blaze were scouting out additional fires inside the five-story brick building when they became disoriented.
One weary Worcester firefighter, his face and uniform grimy from battling the blaze, wept as he hugged a comrade outside of St. Stephen's Church. The firefighter, who said he has been 27 years on the job, said he knew all six victims.
"It's horrible. We're all in total disbelief. Total numbness" he said. "They were all our friends. All family people."
Dio said the missing firefighters ranged from three to 28 years in experience and were from 30 to 50 years old.
Two firefighters, believing the area was clear, entered the building to battle flames from the inside, said Dio. The men carried tanks that contained 30 minutes worth of air, but became disoriented and quickly radioed for help.
Suddenly, Dio said, the fire "banked down really low to the ground," trapping the two men in flames. It was unclear last night how long the two men had been in the building or where they had entered the brick-and-wood warehouse.
A rescue team used thermal imaging cameras, designed to sense body heat through smoke and fire, to try to find their comrades. But the effort was unsuccessful, Dio said, and minutes later, four other firefighters tethered to each other by safety lines went into the building to attempt a rescue of their colleagues.
The search team also was equipped with air tanks. Dio said last night that under the conditions of the raging fire, their air tanks would last no longer than 15 minutes.
In all his years as a fire marshal, Coan said, he had never dealt with such a devastating loss. He said some of the missing were instructors at the state fire academy.
"The obvious hurt that is on the faces and the minds of these firefighters is just unbelievable," said Coan, likening the devastation to the 1972 Vendome Hotel fire in Boston that claimed the lives of nine Massachusetts firefighters.
"These were friends," he said. "Some of them worked with me."
Shortly before 11 p.m., panic-stricken family members of local firefighters poured into nearby St. Stephen's Church for news. Some ran into the church; others frantically tried to find out the engine numbers of the fire units first on the scene to determine if loved ones were involved in the disaster.
One man, who would not identify himself but who believed his close friend was among the missing, clutched rosary beads and said, "I'm just praying for the best," before tears burst from his swollen eyes.
The first alarm went out at 4 p.m. and within an hour the blaze had reached five alarms. Flames were still visible by 10 p.m., and the building was still smoking at midnight.
Some 300 firefighters from Worcester, Middlesex County and a dozen surrounding communities continued to battle the blaze late into the night, more than six hours after the first alarm.
Dio said the structure's interior was built using "old-mill construction" - wooden beams and storage compartments.
Though the cause of the fire is still not known, federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were at the scene to assist in the investigation. Coan said their presence was standard procedure for a fire of this magnitude.
Groups of firefighters were relieved of duty at about 10:30 p.m., and left the scene shaken and stunned. Coan said the firefighters were immediately taken for counseling with stress-management teams set up in nearby churches.
The deaths mobilized clergy from around the region last night. The bishop of Worcester, Daniel P. Reilly, was on hand to console families of the presumed victims.
Priests from Our Lady of Mount Carmel-Saint Ann opened their parish as a counseling station for firefighters.
The six-story warehouse, which occupies a full block, stands just 50 feet from the eastbound lanes of Interstate 290. It was so damaged by fire that officials warned that the building's brick walls could collapse, and moved the crowd of reporters and spectators several hundred yards from the scene.
At the height of the blaze, State Police closed both the eastbound and westbound lanes of I-290.
The fire snarled traffic throughout Worcester all night, and some nearby neighborhoods temporarily lost power.
The towering flames and spiraling smoke, turning from black to white, drew many area residents to the scene. As late as 11:30 p.m. parents and their children stood outside near the recently renovated Union Station train depot.
The fire was at least the second in the abandoned building. In October 1998, a squirrel crawled into the building and short-circuited some wires.
Last night, Governor Paul Cellucci called Coan to offer assistance.
Tatsha Robertson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used.