Fire chaplain's faith helped him through Worcester LODDs

By Bronislaus B. Kush
The Telegram & Gazette 

WORCESTER, Mass. — In the spring of 1962, the Rev. Peter J. Scanlon, then a curate in Southbridge, received a letter from Bishop Bernard J. Flanagan informing him that he was the new assistant fire chaplain for the Diocese of Worcester.

"The bishop wrote that he thought I might be the guy for the position," said Rev. Scanlon, who would become the diocese's chief fire chaplain when the Rev. James Kelly moved on to other duties. "To this day, I'm really not sure how he came to that conclusion."

Just about a week into the job, the Rev. Scanlon, with no training, faced a fire chaplain's worst nightmare — dealing with the emotional toll wrought by the death of a firefighter in the line of duty.

On a March day, 19 firefighters entered the Northbridge Furniture building on Southbridge Street to put out a raging fire.

One of them — Anthony Annunziata — became confused in the chaos and lost his way.

Found unconscious, the 27-year-old, who had just gotten married six months earlier, was rushed to Worcester City Hospital, where he died.

Rev. Scanlon, now retired, said the experience was the first of many sad and gut-wrenching events he would face over the next 46 years as a fire chaplain.

But none was as taxing as the deaths of the six firefighters in the Dec. 3, 1999, inferno at the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building.

"That was very personal," said the 78-year-old Roman Catholic priest, choking back tears. "Over the years, I had come to know these men and their families."

Rev. Scanlon was visiting the Shrewsbury home of his sister, former Assistant City Manager Peggy Ann Scanlon, when he learned about the blaze from radio reports. He called fire dispatch and was told to get to the scene as quickly as possible.

When he arrived, officials already were sounding the alarm warning firefighters to get out of the huge, fire-engulfed building.

Speculation was rampant that at least six firefighters, maybe as many as eight, had perished.

Some firefighters, including grizzled veterans, openly wept. Others walked about with stunned looks.

"I'll always remember those images," said Rev. Scanlon, who stepped down as chaplain two years ago.

Fire Chief Dennis L. Budd asked Rev. Scanlon to set up a center off the fire site where the families of the missing firefighters could be assembled. It was decided that nearby St. Stephen Church, at Hamilton and Grafton streets, would be suitable.

The six families were driven to the brick church by Police or Fire department drivers and each was eventually taken to separate classrooms where they awaited word about the fate of their loved ones.

A priest was assigned to each family and Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, prayer book in hand, was on the scene to help out.

"I can't say enough about the bishop," remembered Rev. Scanlon. "He looked at me and said, `Father Peter, how can I help?' He truly was a shepherd for his people."

Rev. Scanlon said a cloud of anxiety and sadness hung over the church for hours.

"We (the priests) were basically flying by the seat of our pants because we had never dealt with a situation like this before," Rev. Scanlon said. "There was no official word but everyone was thinking the worst. All you had to do is look out the window and you'd see those flames."

He said that Chief Budd, about 3 a.m. Dec. 4, gathered the families together and told them that there was little hope the firefighters were alive.

By 4 a.m., the 100 or so that had huddled at the church had gone home.

Over the next week or so, Rev. Scanlon spent most of his time at the Franklin Street fire scene, counseling firefighters. He caught a couple of hours of sleep when he could.

Rev. Scanlon said he could not have gotten through the ordeal without his faith and without the help and support of many of the students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he also served as school chaplain.

He said students brought him food and stayed with him at the scene.

"They helped pull me through," Rev. Scanlon said.

He said the fire is a constant in his life.

"It's still so very much on my mind," Rev. Scanlon said. "The number of good men lost ... Every time that I hear that there's a fire I think, `Please God, not again.'"

Rev. Scanlon knew each of the men, and attended every one of the wakes and funeral services.

Five of the firefighters were Catholic and Rev. Scanlon fondly remembered how religion played an important role in their lives.

He said, for example, that Lt. Thomas E. Spencer was a lector at St. Charles Borromeo Church and that Firefighter Paul A. Brotherton taught catechism classes at St. Joseph Church in Auburn.

Firefighter Joseph T. McGuirk was a member of Pius X Church in Leicester.Rev. Scanlon said Mr. Brotherton would start each shift quietly saying the Firefighter's Prayer in front of his locker.

"They were all just ordinary guys who loved their jobs and families," he said.

He recalled, for example, that Lt. James F. "Jay" Lyons III would always get some friendly ribbing from his colleagues whenever he visited.

"They'd say, 'Father, why don't you recruit Jay for the priesthood? He's still single,'" said Rev. Scanlon.

He said he had a bit of a special bond with Firefighter Jeremiah M. Lucey because both had family roots in Ireland's County Kerry.

Rev. Scanlon said he was asked to offer the opening prayer at the memorial service at the DCU Center but he couldn't bring himself to do it.

He said he's been frequently asked to discuss the fire at professional seminars but has declined out of respect for the dead firefighters.

"Fifteen minutes before that fire they were probably just joking around with their friends and now they're gone," Rev. Scanlon said.

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