Worcester 6 honored in emotional ceremony on 20th anniversary of Cold Storage fire
"We feel them in our hearts and minds as they continue to guide us," said Worcester Fire Chief Michael Lavoie at the Tuesday night ceremony
MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass.
WORCESTER, Mass. — Hundreds of firefighters and civilians gathered on the cold pavement on Worcester’s Franklin Street Tuesday night, a chill still in the air from the season’s first snowstorm. Exactly 20 years ago, hundreds of firefighters were at this spot, heat and smoke in the air from a massive fire that would claim the lives of six firefighters.
The group stood somberly, reflecting on the incredible loss the Worcester Fire Department and city suffered on Dec. 3, 1999, when flames consumed the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building, changing the department, and the families of the fallen, forever.
“The Worcester Cold Storage fire, the building from hell, was by far the worst tragedy we’ve ever seen,” Worcester Fire Chief Michael Lavoie said during an emotional, hour-long tribute to the six fallen firefighters.
The fire claimed the lives of the “Worcester 6”: Fire Lt. Thomas Spencer, Lt. Timothy Jackson Sr., Lt. James Lyons III and Firefighters Jeremiah Lucey, Paul Brotherton and Joseph McGuirk.
“Passion. Dedication. Loving. Caring. Friendship. Brotherhood. These are just some of the unseen, important traits of firefighters and 20 years ago a fire put all these things to the test,” Lavoie said, next to a flag at half staff and at a podium illuminated with red lights. “All of these unseens -- passion, dedication, loving, caring, friendship and brotherhood -- were on full display that night by all the firefighters both inside the warehouse and those preparing to go in.”
White-hot flames filled the 110,000-square-foot building, with a maze-like structure, after two homeless people staying inside knocked over a candle. More than 75 firefighters rushed inside the Franklin Street building. Six of them never made it out.
“Two of our members became lost and running out of air. Many of our firefighters then entered the building in a valiant effort to locate their brothers, some pushing it to the limit within seconds of their own demise,” Lavoie said during the memorial event at the Franklin Street Fire Station, which was built on the site of the Cold Storage building.
That day, the department could have never imagined six firefighters wouldn’t make it out alive.
“To lose one firefighter is a tragedy. To lose six firefighters on one night is almost unthinkable,” said City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. “We will never forget the sacrifices these six firefighters made in the line of duty in the effort to save others.”
The Worcester 6 indeed have never been forgotten in the city. But the heartbreaking anniversary of the blaze stings, especially during a grueling year for the Worcester Fire Department, which just lost a firefighter last month.
On Nov. 13, Lt. Jason Menard was killed battling a four-alarm fire at 7 Stockholm St.
In addition to Menard, Worcester has seen two other line-of-duty deaths within the last year. Over the summer, Lt. John Kennedy died a few days after fighting a fire. And last December, a fire at 5-7 Lowell St. claimed the life of Firefighter Christopher Roy. And on Dec. 8, 2011, Firefighter Jon Davies died fighting a fire at a three-decker on Arlington Street.
“In Worcester, being a firefighter is a proud identity, a noble identity. An identity that has come to mean so much to this city and this community throughout the last two decades as our firefighters have sacrificed their lives for our safety,” Augustus said.
Augustus quoted an essay Lyons wrote in 1983 as part of an application to Clark University. The essay was about an event in his neighborhood in which firefighters saved an elderly resident.
“Why did these men risk their lives for someone they didn’t even know," Lyons wrote. "The answer itself is very simple. This is their life. The life of saving others.”
Mayor Joseph Petty said Tuesday’s memorial was about the fallen firefighters and also about their families, whose lives were forever scarred by tragedy.
“I remember the families of the firefighters gathered for days, huddled together against the cold December chill under the (interstate) 290 overpass, waiting for news, hoping for the best, praying for a miracle," he recalled.
In the crowd at the memorial, Millbury Fire Chief Rich Hamilton also recalled that night, though he was on I-290, providing mutual aid as firefighters battled the flames.
“It didn’t set in until the next morning,” he recalled. “I remember watching the sunrise as we were sitting there running the pump, going, ‘those guys are still in the building. They’re still in the building. They haven’t found them yet.’ That was the point where you realized it’s real. They’re there and they’re not going to come out.”
The blaze changed firefighting across the globe, especially as it came to fighting fires in abandoned buildings. And locally, it has changed the way firefighters train in Central Massachusetts, especially at the training center at the Worcester Fire Department headquarters on Grove Street.
That training center was a project of the Leary Firefighters Foundation lead by actor Denis Leary, a Worcester native who was cousins with Lucey and childhood friends with Spencer.
“Our mission to help firefighters across America began here in the memory of the incredible Worcester Six 20 years ago,” Leary said at the memorial.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said she had wondered if a silver lining could be found from such a tragedy.
“The only thing I could think about is this,” she said to the hundreds in the crowd. “This amazing community spirit, this amazing ability for this community to stick together, to stand together and to show the respect and love to the Worcester 6 and to their families and to the others that follow after them.”
Family members of the Worcester 6 laid wreaths outside the station. The ceremonial bell was rung and bagpipes played.
“Twenty years ago today most of us probably couldn’t define resiliency,” Lavoie said. “Mentally we were totally unprepared for a tragedy of this magnitude and lack of knowledge of what these types of incidents do to humans.”
The Worcester 6 now guide the city’s firefighters, making them better equipped to handle the fallout of tragedy, the chief said.
“Even though we can’t see or touch our six brothers, we feel them in our hearts and minds as they continue to guide us through some of the most difficult times that one department and city can bear,” Lavoie said.
Lavoie ended with a message for his fallen brothers: “We love you, we miss you, and we will never forget you.”
©2019 MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass.