Peabody fatal fire likely an accident
PEABODY -- State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said today officials do not suspect arson in a three-alarm Peabody fire that claimed the life of a veteran firefighter with three young children Friday.
“We believe this was an accidental fire,” Coan said at a press conference at a fire station in Peabody just before noon today.
Firefighters in this North Shore city and across the state were mourning the death of James Rice, a 46-year-old city firefighter who died while battling the flames that gutted a three-story apartment building at 5 Hancock St. His death comes just two weeks after a Worcester firefighter was killed in a building collapse.
More than a dozen people were displaced by the fire, according to tenants, who escaped without serious injury.
Peabody Police Chief Steven Pasdon said Rice was clad in full protective gear, but “met heavy and eventually overwhelming” conditions.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Rice family,” he said.
Pasdon said the investigation had not discovered any wiring or electrical problems that may have caused the fire, but a tenant, Annelly Guerrido, 34 told the Globe Friday night that an outlet in her bedroom blew a fuse and sparked a flame that set her quilt on fire. She could not put it out and alerted neighbors, who fled to safety.
The state’s top fire union official, Edward A. Kelly, today called Rice “a hero” in a phone interview and said he was caught in what is known as a “flashover,” a condition in which an area is engulfed in flames.
Two other firefighters had barely made it down the stairs, he said, but Rice was trapped on the second floor, trying to douse flames to search the area for possible survivors.
“They encountered extremely heavy fire conditions in an occupied building,” said Kelly, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, which represents 12,000 firefighters across the state, including Rice. “We took an oath to risk our lives for people. That’s what we do for a living. We’ve got to assume that someone’s in there. That’s what they were doing. They were trying to knock that fire down.”
Kelly said Rice had missed work at one point in his career for health reasons, which he would not discuss, but Rice had been cleared by doctors to return to active duty. Kelly said he believes the prior health issue condition had nothing to do with his death.
“For us to go to work, doctors have to OK it,” he said. “The chief can’t decide. You can’t decide. It’s got to be people with the letters next to their names.”
Pasdon declined at today’s news conference to comment on whether Rice had missed work because of health issues.
“I’m not here to speak about medical conditions,” Pasdon said.
An autopsy is being conducted to determine the cause of death.
Pasdon said firefighters in the department were holding up well under the circumstances, but were grieving. Grief counselors were brought in as they grappled with the loss of a firefighter who was well-respected in the department.
“You couldn’t know a better guy,” he said.
His family, stricken by the tragedy just before Christmas, asked for privacy.
“I’m sure you can understand they are devastated,” he said.
Peabody Mayor Michael Bonfanti said two separate funds have been established at the North Shore Bank, 32 Main St. in Peabody, for the firefighter and fire victims, the Firefighter James Rice Memorial Fund, to benefit his family, including his wife and three young children, and the City of Peabody Fire Victims Relief Fund, to benefit the 13 people displaced by the fire, some of whom do not have insurance.
The Peabody tragedy follows the deaths of two firefighters in quick succession in Massachusetts. Jon Davies, a 43-year-old Worcester firefighter who rushed into a burning three-decker in search of a tenant who was later found safe, died Dec. 8 when the rear of the building collapsed on him.
On Dec. 21, Methuen firefighter Robert George, a married 46-year-old father of two, who was awaiting the births of his first two grandchildren, apparently had a heart attack at home and died, according to the funeral home obituary. His funeral is on Tuesday.
Kathy McCabe contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globepete. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.