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Memory of 6 fallen Worcester firefighters lives on

A basement is filled with every item the department received in honor of those who died in the 1999 Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire

By Hunter Amabile
The Telegram & Gazette

WORCESTER, Mass. — City firefighters call it “the stuff,” and it has been building up for years.

Some of it is tucked into containers. Other items are too big and occupy the floor.

Every item the Worcester Fire Department received in honor of the six firefighters who died in the 1999 Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building fire is kept inside a basement room of a Compagnie de Saint-Gobain warehouse on New Bond Street.

The items inside symbolize the outpouring of support for the Fire Department that came flowing in from near and far, from all over Worcester County and all over the country.

There is a cast bronze bell made by a firefighter in Chicago and a golden-headed ax mounted on hardwood from the fire departments in Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit. There’s an oversize $300,000 check from the Leary Firefighters Foundation. A 5-foot-tall Santa Claus teddy bear and a 12-foot-tall piece of fence pinned with T-shirts and letters of condolences also take up space.

All of these items were too big to fit in the 88 24-gallon containers filled with cards, marker-drawn posters, and school assignments.

Lt. Donald J. Courtney, the unofficial “keeper of the stuff,” said the first signs of public support made their way to the fences on Franklin Street the day after the fire.

The department’s Engine No. 12 soon became a showcase for public outpouring of support for firefighters. The engine never left the scene, as firefighter tradition holds that the truck must not return to the station without its crew.

As time passed, the donations flowed in.

“Months after the fire, we thought, ‘Wow, we have a lot of stuff,’” Lt. Courtney said. Firefighters bought five storage bins and began putting the items aside. They soon bought five more, and then five more. They started running out of space.

Lt. Courtney is not sure how it happened or who talked to whom, but Saint-Gobain offered the Fire Department a climate-controlled storage room free of charge.

Stepping around boxes, Lt. Courtney and District Fire Chief Walter C. Girard find a framed piece donated by Fire Capt. Michael J. Lavoie. It has pictures of the six firefighters, three on each side of a glass-cased box within the frame. Inside the box is a deposit of ash from the fire and a pair of gloves used to sift through the rubble. Lt. Courtney and Chief Girard remembered the hundreds of people who spent days searching through the destruction, looking for their fallen brothers.

Chief Girard held out a ring of accountability cards he found from a firefighter at Otis Air Force Base. The cards contain the name, blood-type and religion of a firefighter. The cards can be the difference between life and death for a firefighter in distress.

“They tried to be as personal as they could be,” Chief Girard said.

Putting his hand on a chest-high sympathy card, Lt. Courtney said, “Somebody drove this thing from Missouri two days after the fire.” It was painted and folded like a greeting card. Somebody dropped it on firefighters headquarters on Dec. 5 with more than 100 firefighters’ signatures.

Sorting through it all, the two firefighters recalled the way Massachusetts came to their support. Fire departments from across the state stepped in and fought Worcester fires, while the Worcester firefighters searched the rubble. When there wasn’t anybody from the Fire Department to help them navigate, they inserted people who knew the streets and neighborhoods of Worcester.

The material has made its way out of the basement a few times, but the majority remains in boxes.

A couple of years ago, Lt. Courtney took some of the collection to make a presentation at Anna Maria College. He opened one of the storage boxes. In the box he found postmarks from all 50 states, as well as the United Kingdom, the Caribbean islands and one from a Worcester resident on a naval ship at sea.

There were plans to build a room to showcase some pieces when the new fire station on Franklin Street was built, but, as the plan was slimmed down, the room was nixed, Lt. Courtney said.

“There’s a million and one things we should do with this stuff,” he said. They hope to turn it into a rotating memorial so that it can go on display monthly at one of the Worcester fire stations.

There was a spike of donations of food and flowers around the 10-year anniversary last year. To this day, the gifts are still coming in. The latest item possibly headed for storage is a concrete bench made by a California student as part of a school project.

Lt. Courtney doesn’t know why people donated what they did, but he said their support helped the Fire Department get through a difficult time.

“It is important for people to never forget that we appreciate what they did.”

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