The phone rang as we walked into the kitchen. “Isn’t it awful what happenned to those poor Worcester firemen?” my wife’s grandmother asked.
We had been away all weekend, and in the days before smartphones, Facebook, and Twitter, we hadn’t heard. The TV was no use on a Sunday evening, so we were sent running to the internet connection. Firehouse.com and NECN were telling a story almost too horrific to believe.
At 18:13 hours on Friday, December 3, 1999, Worcester Fire Alarm struck box 1438 for the Worcester Cold Storage building at 266 Franklin Street. Before the night was over, six firefighters would perish inside the hulking, windowless six-story maze of a building. Two would lose their way while searching for possible occupants; four more would die attempting to rescue them. And a district chief would be forced to stand in a doorway, face his men, and tell them, “No more.”
There is a famous photo of that night, showing fire towering into the sky in the shape of a silhouetted firefighter.
Memories of the week come in snippets for me. We checked the internet regularly; news seemed to break minute by minute, all of it grim. It took eight days to recover all six bodies.
The memorial service was held six days after the fire. They say 30,000 of us attended. President Clinton and Senator Kennedy gave speeches. I don’t remember a word of what the President said. Senator Kennedy gave a moving address featuring the poem, “Brother, when you weep for me. . .”
It seemed like the whole city turned out in mourning. People lined the entire route of the procession. We marched about a mile from the assembly point to the Worcester Centrum (now DCU Center) for the service. The city remained silent except for one lone church bell, tolling over and over as we walked.
Firemen don’t march in lock-step like an army. Thousands of feet in patent-leather shoes walked independently, creating a rippling wave of sound as we crossed the city. Silence, church bells, and thousands of footfalls. Nothing else.
One visual image remains strong: the power company linemen. They had lined up their trucks in a vacant lot, booms extended. They stood at attention in front of them, holding their hardhats over their hearts as we passed.
Our group was among the last to enter the arena; we were literally in the furthest back row. Bagpipes played; a choir sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ I don’t remember a lot of the details, only the raw emotions.
After the ceremony, many went down to visit the fire site. It was within walking distance of the arena, and recovery efforts were still ongoing. Our group stayed away, letting the recovery go on in peace.
District Chief McNamee has retired in the intervening years. The city has built a fire station on the site, and later today they will dedicate a memorial there. We all still carry the ‘W6’ decals on our helmets and the memories in our hearts.
The joy I knew throughout the years,
As I did the job I loved to do,
I pray that thought will see you through.
Rest in peace, gentlemen.
FF Paul Brotherton, Rescue 1
FF Jeremiah Lucey, Rescue 1
Lt Thomas Spencer, Ladder 2
Lt Timothy Jackson, Ladder 2
FF James Lyons, Engine 3
FF Joseph McGuirk, Engine 3