WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — Inside the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse and Co. building, a monster was growing.
As the calls came in nearly 20 years ago, Worcester firefighters did what they have done for decades. They went inside the building to save people they believed were inside.
They were met with white-hot flames. Oxygen only fed the monster more.
The abandoned cold storage warehouse was a 110,000-square-foot maze. The building had been cut up inside and had very few windows. In the aftermath, fire officials would call the warehouse the “building from hell.”
Some firefighters first on the scene thought it would be a simple surround and drown. Instead, they found much worse.
“This was a perfect storm of fires,” Worcester Fire Lt. John Franco recalled.
As firefighters battled the beast and searched inside the maze-like innards of the building for two people who had been reported to be inside, six firefighters were lost.
That cold day on Dec. 3, 1999, the monster took the lives of six brave men: Lt. Thomas Spencer, Lt. Timothy Jackson Sr., Lt. James Lyons III, and firefighters Jeremiah Lucey, Paul Brotherton and Joseph McGuirk.
Twenty years later, the namesakes of several of the men known as the Worcester 6 ride the big red trucks and respond to the same calls their fathers once did.
Inside the Franklin Street Fire Station in October, a group of firefighters hugged and razzed one another about which firehouse was the best. The names of the firefighters carried last names that people in the city know well: Brotherton, Spencer, Lucey.
Five of Paul Brotherton’s six sons serve on the department: Mike and Brian are in the South Division; Steve is stationed at Park Avenue; Dave is on McKeon Road.
Thomas Spencer’s son, Danny Spencer, is stationed over at Tatnuck Square.
Jeremiah Lucey’s son, also named Jeremiah Lucey, along with Brotherton’s son, Tim, are both stationed at the Franklin Street Fire Station, the station located on the site of the Dec. 3, 1999 fire. Out in front of the station is a memorial for the Worcester 6.
“It’s an unspoken bond,” Danny Spencer said after the sons of the Worcester 6 gathered inside the station.
‘I think about him every day’
Jeremiah Lucey III was 11 when his father died.
He still remembers learning about his father’s death. Lucey was at a dance in Leicester and had been brought home.
“The news came in,” Lucey recalled. “We knew that he was lost, and we knew that something was going on. I was like, man, dad is Superman you know, he’s gonna come home.”
His family was whisked away in a Leicester police cruiser to St. Stephen’s Church, just eight blocks away from the scene of the fire on Grafton Street.
Lucey always knew his father was happy on the job. He remembers riding with his father on the back of his Harley Davidson.
He also remembers shortly after his father’s death that he knew he wanted to become a firefighter.
“I think about him every day. Just as much as anybody would,” Lucey said. “Riding on that truck is probably the closest I’ll get to feeling exactly how he felt.”
Lucey lifted his sweatshirt sleeve on his arm. There was a tattoo depicting the Cold Storage fire and his father’s badge number, the same badge number Lucey now has. A portrait of Lucey’s father is higher on his arm.
“My father used to tell me all the time no way in hell you’re getting on the job, but you know, he knew I think deep down that I was gonna do it,” Lucey, 31, said. “I’ve always wanted to do it since I was a little kid.
“I wanted him to be proud. I’m sure he’s proud.”
On Lucey’s right wrist, he carries the memory of another firefighter, Christopher Roy.
Lucey was the other firefighter trapped inside 5-7 Lowell St. on Dec. 9, 2018. Roy died in the fire. Lucey was able to get out.
Months after the fire that claimed Roy’s life, Lucey and his wife, Katie, had their son, Jeremiah Lucey IV. They all live in the Leicester home where Lucey grew up in. He hopes the memories of his father and the lessons he learned from his dad can be used to shape his young son’s life.
“I hope so. I hope I can honor him the right way and teach him the right things and hopefully he can grow up to be the man my dad taught me to be,” Lucey said.
Lucey then shared a hug with Danny Spencer inside the Franklin Street Fire Station. The two firefighters graduated from the same class. Lucey was a groomsman at Spencer’s wedding.
Spencer decided public service was his path in his life after his father died in the Cold Storage fire.
With a smile, Spencer remembered the last phone call with his father. With a mouthful of pizza, Spencer reassured his father that he would save some for his siblings.
“I was on the phone with him when the first box came in,” Spencer said. He was just 13.
Now, 33, Spencer remembers sitting inside a locker room in the Centrum — the now DCU Center in Worcester — surrounded by the families of the Worcester 6. He wondered who all these people were. Some of those people would become his brother firefighters years later.
All of them would hear the words from then-President Bill Clinton at the memorial service.
“They were firefighters to the core, heroes already, as we have heard, to their friends and loved ones, not to mention the people they saved through the years,” Clinton said. “For all six, being a firefighter was more than a job, it was in their blood. So when they went into that building that night, they were following their dream to serve, to save lives, and to stick together.”
Firefighting is certainly in Spencer’s blood. His mother’s father was also a Worcester firefighter. His mother, Kathy, had a feeling Spencer was going to wear the same uniform as her father and his father.
“She knew it was coming,” Spencer said. “I used to hang out at Grove Street (station) after my dad died. They would let me stay the night and then someone would drive me home in the morning.”
The Brotherton brothers expected their father to be at the Cold Storage fire.
For the Brotherton brothers, many of them knew they wanted to be a firefighter before their father died. They all learned about his death either Friday night, the day of the fire, or the following day.
“I don’t think dad’s going to be coming home. Dad had a bad fire last night.”
Those were the heartbreaking words Denise Brotherton told two of her sons, David and Jonathan.
“It was a heavy toll for a 6-year-old to take, but it’s made me a better person,” David said. “I’m ready to follow his footsteps. I love my job.”
Mike was 14 when his father died. His dad picked him up from Saint John’s High School in Shrewsbury during a half-day at school and then headed to work around 5 p.m.
The box for the first alarm would come at 6:13 p.m.
People then started showing up at the Brotherton home in Auburn.
“We put on the news and they tell us there is a big fire,” Mike said. “We didn’t think too much of it. My father had been to a lot of big fires. I remember everything.”
As more people showed up, the Worcester fire chief’s truck came up the street with the lights on.
Denise Brotherton let out a scream.
“I think I punched a wall out of anger,” Mike said.
Mike, 34, wanted to be a firefighter at a young age, like his brothers. That night, it sealed the deal for Mike. He was going to be a firefighter.
Brian, 33, knew at 6 years old. His father died when he was 13.
“I was just always fascinated with first-responders,” he said. “I used to watch that show Rescue 911 all the time. I’m proud that there’s multiple of us on. We’re all in it for the same reason. Serve the community, protect lives, protect property and hopefully change someone’s life.”
Brian used to head to the stations to pick up paychecks with his father. There are days when he is playing with his children, and he remembers his dad.
“He’s probably bummed he’s not alive to work with us,” Brian said. “He certainly would be proud. He would want us to do whatever made us happy.”
Two thought trapped
Earlier reports during the fire were that two homeless people were trapped inside. A homeless couple living inside the six-story building, abandoned years earlier, got in an argument and knocked over a candle on the second floor.
The couple left the building and never reported it. Firefighters didn’t know they got out.
As firefighters rushed inside, the influx of fresh air fed the growing fire.
Retired Fire Lt. Joseph Gaffney was on Engine 7 on Grafton Street. His crew headed to the scene. He looked into the sky.
“We could see a column of white smoke and that was a good thing to a firefighter. Usually, if you see a good working fire, it is black. I was saying they were hitting it and they are getting water on the fire,” Gaffney said.
Everything changed in seconds. The white smoke turned black.
“What the hell just happened?” he thought.
A rescue crew searching the building became lost inside the vast dark spaces. A mayday call went out as they ran short of air.
Gaffney, who entered the building with his crew, couldn’t see anything inside.
Firefighters will tell people to put their hands over their eyes and that’s what it is like to try to see inside a fire. This fire was like having your eyes closed.
Retired Worcester Fire Chief Gerard Dio heard “Paul and Jerry” on the radio calling for help.
“Fire alarm we have a second emergency here. Get people up on this floor now or we are going to die! We have no air and we cannot breathe.”
“What floor are you on? What floor are you on?”
“We don’t know. We don’t know. We were on a wall. We have no air. Please.”
Spencer, Jackson, McGuirk and Lyons were on the fifth floor to search. They became disoriented on the upper floors and were lost.
When the evacuation order was issued one hour and 45 minutes into the fire, six firefighters were missing.
“We still thought it would be fine. We always got out,” Franco said. “I assumed they would find their way out.”
Worcester Fire Chief Michael Lavoie was a firefighter at the Southbridge Street Fire Station when the fourth alarm was struck.
He could see the flames coming through the Cold Storage warehouse from his station.
“I’m getting dressed and one of the guys said there were two guys missing and they believe they are dead,” Lavoie said. “I didn’t believe it. I said no way, no way.”
Firefighters from his station piled up into a pickup truck.
“When we got here, we actually drove down Franklin Street and there were only three windows on that side of the building,” Lavoie said. “You looked in the windows and I’ve never seen fire that was actually white. It was basically white-hot.”
Lavoie knew then, his brothers were gone. Even now, his eyes glaze over and Lavoie is rushed back to that day, that moment when he talks about it.
“We were all just in shock. Just devastated,” he said.
As the fire raged, the warehouse’s interior collapsed onto the concrete floor of the second story. The location became known as the deck.
“Once it collapsed, it was an inferno,” Dio said.
A grueling recovery
Dio, then deputy chief, steadied himself that night. He was given the task of addressing the media. He had to tell the world the dire news.
Thousands of firefighters converged on Worcester. The battle against the fire lasted for more than 20 hours.
Firefighters spent days sifting through the rubble. They weren’t leaving until they found their fallen brothers.
Dio remembered firefighters with small brushes dusting ash from the rubble as the search continued.
The first fallen firefighter was found on a Sunday. It would take six-and-a-half days to recover the last firefighter.
The sifting operation ran around the clock.
“We had guys with paintbrushes dusting the embers,” Dio said.
Now the site of the Cold Storage fire is constantly under protection by firefighters. The station on Franklin Street was officially opened on Nov. 19, 2008.
Mike Brotherton remembered proposing a fire station for the site when he was 14, the same year the building was consumed in the blaze. The location made sense to serve the city.
“It is sacred ground. Nothing else should be here,” Mike said. “Having a station here, it is always going to be protected and preserved.”
Next to the memorial at the Franklin Street Fire Station is another reminder of the ultimate sacrifice.
A granite pedestal holds a bronze helmet. It is a Firefighter Jon D. Davies Sr.’s helmet.
He died fighting a fire inside a three-decker at 49 Arlington St. on Dec. 8, 2011. A person was possibly missing inside the home. Suddenly, the building collapsed.
Franco remembers sharing text-messages the night before the fire with Davies. They were members of the Dive Team. Davies wondered if it was going to be too cold for training in the morning.
Franco woke up to a slew of text-messages on his phone. He thought it was Davies and Dive Team members asking about training. It wasn’t.
“Jon brought it all back to us. We didn’t think it was possible,” said Franco, who is part of the Worcester Firefighters Funeral Committee. “December, I can’t explain it.”
Franco isn’t just talking about Davies. On Dec. 9, 2018, Firefighter Christopher Roy died fighting a fire inside 5-7 Lowell St.
Danny Spencer was heading out the door with his wife and kids the day of the Lowell Street fire. They were heading to the Christmas party for the department’s children.
He received a text. The party was canceled.
“It’s a tough month. Not a good month. If I could, I would skip it,” Spencer said.
The deaths prompted Mayor Joseph Petty to call December “the cruelest month.”
“It is an emotional month. It’s very tough not just because of the 20th anniversary of the fire but because of what happened to Jon Davies and now we have Chris Roy’s first year anniversary,” David Brotherton said. “It weighs heavy on us.”
Gaffney equates it to carrying a backpack. Throughout a firefighter’s career, they see lots of things. People who overdosed, civilians killed in fires, accidents and more. Every incident is like tossing a pebble into the backpack. Losing other firefighters is like tossing in boulders.
“At some point, it gets too damn heavy and you have to unload that backpack,” Gaffney said, sitting feet from the Worcester 6 memorial. “Talking about it helps.”
People across Worcester and the globe helped, too. Messages of support, stuffed animals and posters filled the area around the Cold Storage fire. The items, 82 bills worth, are still in the Worcester Fire Department’s possession to this day.
Several organizations donated to help the department. Born after the devastating fire was The Leary Firefighters Foundation, created by actor Denis Leary, the cousin of Lucey and childhood friend and high school classmate of Spencer.
The foundation helped fund The Leary Firefighters Foundation and EMC Corporation Burn Tower and Training Facility located behind the Grove Street headquarters.
In September, the ground was broken for the Firefighters Memorial Walkway at O’Connell Field and Salisbury Pond.
Just two weeks after MassLive conducted interviews remembering the Worcester 6, the fire department suffered another cruel blow.
Fire Lt. Jason Menard and his family were ready to head to Disney World, but not until he finished his shift on Nov. 13. Anticipation and elation turned to devastation. Menard became trapped in the upper floors of a three-decker on Stockholm Street.
He helped one member of his crew find his way out and pushed another firefighter out of a window, saving his life. Menard’s actions were simply heroic. He never made it out.
Thousands of firefighters and people flocked to Worcester once again. The bagpipes played, the flowers were displayed and bitterly cold rain fell the day of his funeral.
People will collect in Worcester at the Franklin Street Fire Station on Dec. 3 to remember the Worcester 6 and then on Dec. 8 to honor Davies.
Roy will be remembered on Dec. 9 at the Webster Square Fire Station.
“I think the city of Worcester loves its police and fire departments,” City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. said. “Because of the losses the Worcester Fire Department has experienced over the years, there is a sense of family, protectiveness and shared mourning for the fire department.”