Center helps Worcester FFs cope with lasting trauma

Worcester Fire Chief Michael J. Lavoie says the center that offered counseling after the 1999 Cold Storage & Warehouse Fire has improved its approach over the years


Brian Lee
Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.

WORCESTER, Mass. — When Fire Chief Michael J. Lavoie suggests there's no shame in seeking help for tragedies firefighters encounter, he speaks from his experience looking for colleagues in the rubble of the Cold Storage & Warehouse fire on Dec. 3, 1999.

One of 101 city firefighters still with the department 20 years after the tragic blaze claimed six firefighters, Lavoie spoke of how his feelings about seeking therapy have evolved two decades later.

President and Founder Hayden A. Duggan and his wife, Director Valerie Duggan, run the On-Site Academy in Westminster, Mass., which offers counseling and support to emergency responders. (Photo/Rick Cinclair, Telegram & Gazette)
President and Founder Hayden A. Duggan and his wife, Director Valerie Duggan, run the On-Site Academy in Westminster, Mass., which offers counseling and support to emergency responders. (Photo/Rick Cinclair, Telegram & Gazette)

The fire claimed Lt. Thomas Spencer, 42, of Worcester, Lt. James Lyons, 34, of Worcester; and firefighters Paul Brotherton, 41, of Auburn, Timothy Jackson, 51, of Hopedale, Jeremiah Lucey, 38, of Leicester, and Joseph McGuirk, 38, of Worcester.

About the search, Lavoie said, "They had this big staging area where all the firefighters would stand and freeze and wait to be called to go to what we called 'the deck,' " the building's first-floor concrete slab.

At the time a rank-and-file firefighter 12 years into his career, Lavoie said he and Firefighter Jack T. Toney decided not to follow rules.

"We kept getting kicked off, and then we'd find ways to get back on," Lavoie said.

The two eventually ended up finding Spencer and McGuirk, in an area where they thought they might be.

"To this day, I really don't know how that made me feel," Lavoie said.

Unable to differentiate the two, they summoned Spencer's brother, Firefighter Michael Spencer, to the deck.

Spencer knew that his brother wore his wedding ring on a chain around his neck, and at that point was able to identify him, Lavoie said.

Here's where counseling came in. Lavoie said firefighters were required to take part in a debriefing by a critical-incident stress-management team of counselors from the state who were set up in a nearby tent city.

Lavoie said it was too soon to talk.

"They would ask us, 'So tell me how you feel?' " Lavoie recalled.

"Most people just sat there and didn't say a word. Other people let F-bombs fly," he said.

"It didn't work. It wasn't the time. It wasn't the place. Guys were like, 'We got guys in here, and you're asking me to come down there and tell you how I feel?' Let me get back to work and do what I'm supposed to do," said Lavoie, who became chief in 2017.

But things have since changed for the better, Lavoie said.

For instance, after Firefighter Christopher Roy's line-of-duty death 12 months ago, the same people from the state CISM team, as well as Worcester's internal CISM team, summoned firefighters for a sit-down to make them aware of signs and symptoms of trauma and stress they would likely experience down the line.

"This did affect you and it will change you one way or the other," Lavoie said of line-of-duty deaths. "So you really need to focus on what's happening in your life. It could be two, three, four or five years down the road. Then all of a sudden you start to spiral out of control. You don't know what's happening."

It's mainly guilt, Lavoie said, and without proper coping mechanisms, alcohol, drugs, gambling or other vices can take control.

Lavoie admitted he began to drink alcohol in excess five years after the Cold Storage fire.

"I believe it was around 2004 or '05," he said. "I was done. I was out of control. I was a lieutenant (at Park Avenue Fire Station) at this time. I remember I was in the back parking lot at Park Avenue, made sure nobody was around, and called the number for EAP (employee assistance program). I told them I need to talk to someone."

The chief said he was connected with a social worker for two years, and he was able to overcome his problems, mainly by turning his focus to advancing his career and hitting the books.

Lavoie said he was at first hesitant about visiting the On-Site Academy, a nonprofit residential treatment and training center in Westminster for critical-incident stress management. It serves emergency service workers who are in distress in Massachusetts.

But he decided to give it a try and found it helpful.

"I went out and couldn't believe it," Lavoie said. "It was a ranch house with a corralled-off area in back with a couple of donkeys back there. It was cool and it was laid-back and down-to-earth. All the counselors there are trained in trauma and know firefighters."

In terms of peer support and critical incident services, the Cold Storage fire was the largest callout in state history until the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, said Hayden A. Duggan, president and founder of the On-Site Academy.

To this day, the academy continues to treat Worcester firefighters who were affected by what they went through in December 1999, Duggan said.

Eight days of exposure to the massive fire scene, sifting through debris, remains a topic for which the academy counsels firefighters, Duggan said.

"You have exposure to remains, exposure to families and children at wakes and funerals. You have the fire itself, which was evil. That was an evil building."

Duggan said the academy mobilized 267 volunteer peer-support counselors to work the scene from Dec. 3 until the following Saturday night, when then-Chief Dennis Budd declared the last firefighter recovered.

There were also about 60 fire chaplains from around the state operating out of a tent for all eight days.

Duggan said it's an honor to continue to serve Worcester firefighters, who he asserted remain "a well-trained, tough interior-structure firefighting department."

The scene commander, retired Deputy Chief Michael O. McNamee, said he made several trips to the academy to help cope with the Cold Storage fire.

"Starting around February (2000), the dark clouds really started settling in," McNamee said. "I think I got a Ph.D. from them afterward, because I spent a lot of time with them and it helped tremendously."

Not everybody went for the help, McNamee said, and unfortunately, not everybody was able to get on with their lives again the way others did.

Here's McNamee's takeaway from the counseling:

"It's taking that traumatic memory and changing the results you get every time you think about it," he said. "From a gut punch that releases all kinds of adrenaline into your system every time you think about it to, 'Yeah that was awful, that was sad.' But it doesn't have a physical and psychological impact on me that I know it would still be having if I hadn't reached out."

After the six firefighters were lost inside the building, McNamee made the decision not to allow anyone else in the building.

Duggan said of McNamee: "I'm sure that it's still hard to deal with. To say, 'I'm not losing any more men in there, that's it.' "

Duggan also spoke of the effect on families.

"A lot of the firefighters are residents of that city, or close enough for their families to know what happened (in real time). Many had scanners, and the spouses and children heard, in some cases, the transmission of those dying firefighters.

"So the next day," he continued, "when dad wants to go back and work on the deck to search for remains of his brothers, you have a 6-year-old grabbing his leg, saying, 'Daddy please don't go.' "

If that weren't bad enough, Duggan said, the spouses who didn't lose a loved one were thinking, "I've supported my husband in this profession forever, but I didn't marry him to lose him."

At the request to Chief Budd, Duggan's wife, Valerie, and Kathy Minehan met with firefighters' spouses after the Cold Storage fire at St. Stephen Parish to talk about their feelings.

Valerie Duggan directs the academy, and she and Minehan started a support group for spouses of emergency responders who died in the line of duty.

Minehan is the widow of Boston fire Lt. Steven F. Minehan, who died in 1994 after he was trapped in a nine-alarm warehouse fire in Charlestown while searching for other firefighters.

To Lavoie's point about the timing of counseling debriefings, Duggan acknowledged that doing this work at the scene might not have been ideal.

But he explained that it was on the advice of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, the body that oversaw these volunteer counseling activities.

"We were told, they're hurting and we're heading into Christmas and you cannot allow these men and these families to go into the Christmas season without at least having done an initial debriefing," Duggan said.

"In another time, I probably wouldn't do that, but those are things we learned after," he said.

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©2019 Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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