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Peabody mourns, offers support

Tributes, aid pour in for fire victims

By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2011
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PEABODY - James Rice would have begun a permanent assignment to Engine 5 today.

Instead, last week his name became the 10th on a memorial wall at fire headquarters under a worn wooden plaque that reads “In Grateful Memory.’’

Yesterday, on a day when many families gather and celebrate, the pain was visible in a community still grappling with the loss.

“These guys get up every morning, leave their families,’’ said Phil Sudenfield, one of dozens who visited one of Peabody’s fire stations. Sudenfield and his wife, Dawn, said they contributed to a fund for Rice’s family.

“It’s just hard to fathom that police and firefighters have such a dangerous job that it could be their last day at work,’’ Sudenfield said, while his wife wiped away tears.

“It’s never a good time,’’ Dawn Sudenfield said. “But this is horrific.’’

They were among scores who took time over the holiday to offer condolences, financial support, and food for Rice’s family and the firefighters, after the 42-year-old father of three was killed while fighting a fast-moving three-alarm fire Friday afternoon.

Dozens of flower bouquets, candles, drawings, and hand-scrawled messages were placed around flagpoles in front of Peabody firehouses.

“A true hero,’’ read one note. “May God bless your family,’’ said another. And in a child’s crayon handwriting above a drawing of a fireman’s hat: “Sorry for your loss.’’

Flags flew at half-staff, and in every station hung a banner with a photo of a smiling Rice, bearing the message, “He gave it all.’’

“It’s been amazing what the residents of the city of Peabody have done for Jim and the victims [displaced by the fire] and Jim’s family,’’ said Paul Hichion, deputy fire chief, surrounded by a waist-high pile of toys, home goods, and pantry staples that filled one of the station bays.

This month has been punishing for the state’s firefighters, after the Dec. 8 death of Jon D. Davies Jr., a Worcester firefighter killed while he searched for a man believed to be inside a burning home.

Still in shock from that death, Peabody resident Joanne Croaken said she could not believe the news she heard about Rice.

“When I heard that it was another firefighter I thought I was hearing things,’’ Croaken said as she left Peabody fire headquarters, where she and friend Jeannie Reim donated to the Rice family fund.

“When it’s someone in your town it hurts more,’’ said Reim.

During a Christmas Day Mass, Rice was among those for whom the congregants at St. John the Baptist Parish prayed. He will be memorialized there in a funeral Mass Friday.

“James Rice, who [God has] called from this world, grant that [he] will be united with your Son in a different place,’’ said the Rev. Anselm Nwagbara.

Firefighters said the outpouring of support came swiftly after Rice’s death and will probably continue as his Thursday wake and Friday funeral near.

Jay Imhof of Beverly came to the Lowell Street firehouse yesterday to contribute a baby’s crib for a woman displaced by the fire.

“I heard one of the residents was nine months pregnant,’’ Imhof said.

“She’s due any moment,’’ said Hinchion. “They lost everything.’’

Maureen Grossi, of Malden, stopped en route to her daughter’s home to drop off a plate of cookies.

“You have to thank the people who protect and serve,’’ she said.

Back at Engine 5, where a black bow with “RIP JIM’’ covers the shift-room door, one firefighter, who declined to give his name, out of respect for Rice’s family, said his fallen colleague got along with everybody.

“I’m just one of 100 guys who feel the same way about him,’’ the firefighter said. “That could have been any guy here.’’

Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com.

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