Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse fire: Lessons and a legend emerge from tragedy

Summarizing the lessons learned from two investigations

At 6:13 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 3, 1999, the Worcester (Massachusetts) Fire Department was dispatched to a reported fire at 266 Franklin St., the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Company Building. At 7:26 p.m., a fifth alarm was transmitted, and by 7:58 p.m., the building was ordered evacuated, and six firefighters were missing.

The Worcester Cold Storage fire would continue for eight more days, declared out at 10:27 p.m. on Dec. 11, after the last of the six fallen firefighters was found and removed from the building.             

A memorial honoring the six firefighters killed in the Worcester Cold Storage Fire is adorned with wreaths during the 20th anniversary memorial event at the department in 2019.
A memorial honoring the six firefighters killed in the Worcester Cold Storage Fire is adorned with wreaths during the 20th anniversary memorial event at the department in 2019. (Photo/Worcester Fire Department)

About the Worcester Fire department

At the time of the fire, the City of Worcester was Massachusetts’ second-largest city with a population of approximately 170,000.

Stretching approximately 40 square miles, Worcester is an old New England industrial city complete with all the urban issues of a Rust Belt community.

The city is divided into a north and south district, each with a district (battalion) chief. There is a deputy chief that serves as the city-wide tour commander. The daily staffing can vary between 75 and 105 firefighters on duty, with a minimum staffing of 75.

In 1999, the fire department consisted of 469 personnel (authorized strength 485), operating 15 engine companies, seven ladder companies and one rescue company out of 12 stations.

About the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse buildings

The Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse consisted of two buildings. The first was built in 1906 and the second in 1912.

Openings existed on each floor to allow access to both buildings. The buildings were six stories, with the top four floors constructed of heavy timber. Floors one and two were concrete floors on cast-iron columns.

The interior finish of the building was asphalt-impregnated cork with additional layers of polyurethane, Styrofoam and polystyrene between 6 and 18 inches thick over 18-inch-thick brick walls.

There was only one stairwell that accessed the entire building. It ran from the basement to the roof. There was also an elevator shaft that traveled from the basement to the sixth floor.

There was no building code in effect at the time the building was constructed, and no records of renovations or other modifications to the property.

The fire response

On the afternoon of Dec. 3, 1999, two homeless persons seeking shelter from the cold were in an office on the second floor of the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse building. A candle fell into a pile of clothes, igniting the fire. The two were unsuccessful in extinguishing the fire and left the building, never notifying the police or fire department.

The Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse fire is believed to have started sometime between 4:30 and 5:45 p.m. The fire department would not be dispatched until 6:13 p.m., potentially two hours after the fire started.

The first alarm brought four engines, two ladders, the rescue company, and the North District chief.

En route, the responding district chief, Michael McNamee, transmitted a second alarm as he arrived on the scene. This brought two additional engine companies, a ladder company, and the on-duty deputy chief. The third and fourth alarms each provided two engine companies and one ladder company. The chief of department responded on the third alarm. The fifth alarm brought two more engine companies and the South District chief.           

Multiple 2½-inch handlines were stretched on multiple floors to attack the fire. The radio log indicates that all the lines were facing extreme heat and smoke, and firefighters had difficulty making headway against the fire. The thermal imaging camera provided by a mutual-aid department experienced a white-out from thermal overload.

At 6:46 p.m., Rescue transmitted a mayday, stating that they were lost and running out of air. Two more teams searching for Rescue were lost without any mayday being transmitted.

At 7:58 p.m., with crews eager to enter the structure to look for their fallen brothers, District Chief McNamee physically blocked the doorway and ordered the building evacuated. As described in “3000 Degrees: The True Story of a Deadly Fire and the Men Who Fought It,” McNamee knew that allowing more members into the building meant only more deaths – and Worcester wasn’t going to lose any more firefighters. With this act, Chief McNamee became something of a legend – the epitome of safety-focused command decision-making – and years later, a national award of valor was named after him, redefining the meaning of bravery.

The firefighters killed at the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse fire became known as the Worcester 6: Lt. Thomas Spencer, Firefighter Paul Brotherton, Lt. Timothy Jackson, Firefighter Jeremiah Lucey, Lt. James Lyons and Firefighter Joseph McGuirk.

Investigations in the aftermath of tragedy

After the fire, the federal government published two reports:

  1. NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality report: Six Career Fire Fighters Killed in Cold-Storage and Warehouse Building Fire – Massachusetts – the report was one of the earliest reports completed after Congress funded the Firefighter Fatality program in 1998.
  2. U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series: Abandoned Cold Storage Warehouse Multi-Firefighter Fatality Fire – the report examined the incident for lessons learned to shared with the fire service.

NIOSH report: This report report describes the firefighting operations in detail. The bulk of the report, however, is dedicated to 13 recommendations and discussion about those recommendations – recommendations that apply not only to Worcester but to the entire fire service:

  1. Ensure that vacant buildings are inspected, and pre-fire planning conducted.
  2. Ensue that ICS is fully implemented
  3. Ensure that a safety officer responds to pre-designated fires.
  4. Ensure that SOPs and equipment are sufficient to support the volume of radio traffic.
  5. Ensure Command maintains close accountability of personnel.
  6. Use ropes or tag lines and high-intensity lighting at entryways to assist disoriented firefighters.
  7. Ensure that a Rapid Intervention Team is established and positioned.
  8. Implement a comprehensive occupational health and safety program.
  9. Consider using a marking system when conducting searches.
  10. Placard vacant buildings.
  11. Enforce the department’s mandatory mask rule.
  12. Explore the use of thermal imaging cameras.
  13. Researchers and manufacturers should develop new technology to track firefighters.

USFA Technical Report: The technical report examined six key issues:

  1. Unsecured abandoned buildings;
  2. No internal barriers to prevent the spread of the fire;
  3. Fire spread because of the interior surface finishes;
  4. Delayed alarm and reporting;
  5. Limited access to the building; and
  6. Long interior travel distances from the single stairwell to conduct search and suppression operations.

This report further outlined key lessons from the Worcester Cold Storage Fire:

  • Abandoned buildings are a serious threat to the fire service and a danger to the community.
  • Firefighters must educate themselves to the buildings in their response districts.
  • Fire prevention efforts should be maximized in abandoned buildings to avoid fires.
  • Fire departments should build and maintain their file information on buildings in their communities.
  • Delayed reporting allows a fire to grow and exceed the capabilities of aggressive interior attack suppression.
  • Combustible interior finishes contribute to rapid fire spread.
  • The fire service should initiate firefighter life safety activities early on at a fire scene (RIT/RIC/FAST/On-Deck).
  • Large buildings require unique search techniques and tools.
  • Techniques must be improved to better track firefighters operating in a structure.
  • At multiple alarm incidents, radio channels are often overloaded, and alternatives must be explored.
  • The use of thermal imaging cameras should be further developed.

Applying the lessons and pushing for tech

The fire service continues to feel the impact of the Worcester fire. Some of the lessons and issues identified in the reports are routinely applied today, for example, the use of thermal imaging cameras, rapid intervention teams, and the marking of vacant buildings. Digital technology is also making inroads by providing the systems to transfer preplans from paper compiled in three-ring binders to mobile devices.

On the other hand, viable technology for tracking firefighters is only now becoming available. GPS locators are fine when operating on a single level but are unable to differentiate elevation. In other words, 10 firefighters operating on three floors, look like 10 firefighters on the same level. Fortunately, technology is currently in the works to address this issue.      

When it comes to comprehensive health and safety programs, progress is lagging. Further, some agencies still do not provide their members with annual respirator clearance exams or even a complete fire service-related physical examination.

While the fire service has not yet fulfilled the mission of applying the lessons of Worcester, we owe it to the firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice to continue pushing for change.

Final thoughts

The Worcester Cold Storage fire is more than an incident number. Most firefighters know it by a single word – Worcester. Worcester joins similar fires – the 23rd Street Fire, Hotel Vendome, Waldbaum’s, Sofa Super Store, Father’s Day, Black Sunday and Yarnell Hill – in having an enormous impact on the fire service. These fires, and the resulting lessons learned and technological innovations, are not just stories. They are fire service game-changers, with change that was paid for in blood.

It is therefore critical that we continue to ask questions and seek the lessons of these historic incidents. In the case of Worcester: When do we risk firefighter lives conducting an interior attack? When is attempting a rescue a risk too far? How do we define a building in terms of life hazard? When is vacant not really vacant? Is it abandoned or is it simply unoccupied? What do you really know about the vacant/abandoned/unoccupied buildings in your response area?

Being a student of fire service history is the best way to answer these questions and help prevent future tragedy.

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Worcester reflections 20 years after the industry-changing event

Fire service leaders remember that fateful day when six firefighters lost their lives at the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse fire

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