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Peabody firefighter perishes in blaze

Father of 3 ‘loved and liked by all’

Firefighter James Rice Firefighter James Rice
By Peter Schworm, Taylor M. Miles and Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / December 24, 2011
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PEABODY - A veteran city firefighter and married father of three young children died yesterday while battling a three-alarm fire, the tragic death coming just two weeks after a Worcester firefighter was killed in a building collapse.

Shortly after the early afternoon blaze broke out on the second floor of the Hancock Street apartments, James Rice became trapped amid the intensifying flames and collapsed, authorities and witnesses said.

Crews pulled the 46-year-old from the building and desperately tried to revive him. He was rushed to North Shore Medical Center in Salem, where he was pronounced dead.

“He did take some toxic fumes,’’ said Steven Pasdon, Peabody’s fire chief, “and he did succumb.’’

It was not clear whether Rice had exhausted his air supply when he fell.

A witness, Michael Barreira, said he overheard firefighters alerting one another that Rice was trapped inside.

“It was just a big ball of smoke and fire,’’ said Barreira, a 24-year-old who works across the street from the apartments.

The firefighters rushed Rice out of the building, pulled off his gear, and began pushing down on his chest to administer CPR, he said.

Investigators said they had not determined how the fire started. The residents of the six-unit building, which was gutted in the blaze, escaped without serious injury. About a dozen people were displaced by the fire, according to tenants.

Firefighters were able to control the blaze within 90 minutes.

Last night, Annelly Guerrido, 34, stood in front of the police tape near the building, crying as her sister-in-law and niece comforted her. Guerrido said fire officials, who had just spoken to her, told her it was an electrical fire.

She had just been released from a Salem hospital for smoke inhalation treatment. She said an outlet in her bedroom blew a fuse and sparked a flame that set her quilt on fire.

“I went to put it [the fuse] on and the outlet was close to my bed,’’ she said. “I went back and forth to turn it on and then my son, all of a sudden, I was in his room because the fuse box is in my son’s room, and then he’s like, ‘Mom! Mom!,’ and I went to my bedroom and that’s where I saw the fire. I tried to put it out but I couldn’t.’’

Guerrido said she told her son, Hector Galarza, 15, to grab the dog, knock on apartment doors on the bottom floor, and leave the building. She went to apartments on the third floor and was able to get everyone out.

Guerrido said she had heard what happened to Rice and broke into tears as her sister-in-law and niece told her it was not her fault.

According to a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation, firefighters were ordered out of the building because of deteriorating conditions. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.

As firefighters left the structure, they noticed Rice was missing and began to look for their colleague. They pulled him out and tried to revive him, before he was taken to the hospital, the official said.

Rice was the first firefighter in 10 years to die in the line of duty in Peabody, said the city’s mayor, Michael Bonfanti.

“This is a sad day for the city of Peabody. It just makes it worse that it happened at this time of year,’’ Bonfanti said.

“He was a good firefighter. He was extremely well-liked. He was just a good man, a family man.’’

State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said investigators are pursuing all avenues in trying to determine the fire’s cause, including the possibility of electrical issues in the building. Coan said an autopsy will be conducted to determine Rice’s cause of death.

Firefighters recalled Rice, who had worked at the department for 11 years, as a genial, good-natured spirit who was well-liked in the city, and said they were devastated by his loss.

“I can say that Firefighter James Rice was loved and liked by everybody,’’ Pasdon said. “He will be missed by the Peabody Fire Department and throughout the entire city of Peabody.’’

Rice grew up in Peabody and was an avid sports fan, a close friend and fellow firefighter who did not want to have his name published, said.

A New England Patriots season-ticket holder, he often took his three children - two girls and a boy - to a football field to play, and sometimes would kick field goals by himself.

He was a devoted father who was very involved in his children’s lives and was immensely proud of them, the friend said.

“He could make anybody laugh,’’ the friend said.

Rice was out of work for a few months last year with physical problems, the friend said, but was seemingly in good health since returning.

Anne Manning-Martin, a city councilor whose brother and cousin are city firefighters, said her prayers are with the family.

“This is a very tragic time for certainly the family and the city,’’ she said. “It’s just an awful, awful loss.’’

Coan expressed disbelief over Rice’s death, coming the week after the funeral for Jon Davies Sr., a Worcester firefighter.

“Here we are again,’’ he said in a strained voice. “I never thought I would be standing here today.’’

The investigation will take a hard look at the property’s history, Coan said, and whether it has a record of safety violations.

The property owner, Kenneth Louf, said he was meeting with investigators. “I don’t have a lot of information right now,’’ he said.

In Worcester, Rice’s death hit hard, sharpening still raw grief.

“Our hearts are with them,’’ said Geoffrey Gardell, the city’s deputy fire chief.

Davies was killed Dec. 8 fighting a predawn fire that tore through a three-family home. Shortly after he rushed back into the building to search for a tenant who was reportedly still inside, the back of the building collapsed on him. Authorities later determined the tenant was not in the building.

In Peabody, neighbors said that a number of families with young children live in the building. On the third floor of the white, soot-stained structure, a small bicycle could be seen on the fire escape.

Lori Brigley, a neighbor in the thickly settled neighborhood that is home to many Brazilian immigrants, helped one resident pick up her three young children at their school.

“They were all upset,’’ she said. The family planned to stay with relatives, Brigley said. Other residents were taken to a hotel.

At Rice’s home yesterday evening, no one answered the door.

A nearby pizzeria, Rizzo’s Roast Beef & Pizza, had put out a box in the shop for donations for victims of the fire.

The owner, George Rozopoulos, said Rice was a regular customer. “It’s heartbreaking to see this happen two days before Christmas,’’ he said.

At Engine 5, a fire station a half-mile from the Rice home, the flag was lowered to half-staff.

Shortly before 8 last night, a hearse carrying Rice’s body, escorted by a firetruck and police cruisers, slowly passed by fire headquarters on Lowell Street.

As it passed, some two-dozen firefighters, dressed in full turnout gear, stood at attention, saluting as the hearse paused briefly before making its way to the state medical examiner’s office.

Residents, too, came to pay their respects. “It’s a very sad thing,’’ said Tammy Richmond.

Edward A. Kelly, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts union, asked state residents to remember Rice and his family in their prayers.

“We ask that people please pray for them, that their privacy is respected, and that they are given their time to grieve,’’ Kelly said.

Travis Andersen and John R. Ellement of the Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent Derek J. Anderson contributed to this report.

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