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Thread: Sense of loss is undiminished - Worcester

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    Sense of loss is undiminished - Worcester

    Sunday, November 30, 2003

    Sense of loss is undiminished

    Death of 6 firefighters 4 years ago changes Worcester Fire Department

    By Mark Melady
    T&G STAFF
    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Worcester - Time and the elements have faded the firefighter gear, plastic flowers and stuffed bears that have made the chain-link fence at Franklin and Arctic streets a memorial to six men who died there four years ago this Wednesday.

    At the Central Street Fire Station, boarded up and awaiting demolition for a hotel, parked cars block the bay doors. In the station's parking lot, an 8-foot-high wooden box, painted with WFD and 6 in a ribbon, faces Worcester Center Boulevard - a left-behind monument to the memory of Fire Lieutenants Thomas E. Spencer and James F. "Jay" Lyons and firefighters Paul A. Brotherton, Timothy P. Jackson, Jeremiah M. Lucey and Joseph T. McGuirk.

    But four years after the inferno in the ignominiously misnamed Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building, the collective consciousness of the Worcester Fire Department remains unfaded, and no one needs a painted box to jog the memory.

    "I still can't believe that it happened and they're gone," Fire Chief Gerard A. Dio said. "I don't think anyone on the job at that time will ever get over the sense of loss. We'll carry it to our graves."

    If time has taken its toll at the impromptu memorial, it has finally moved the official memorial committee to its first major step, deciding to place the memorial on seven acres in Institute Park.

    The WFD, like life, has moved on, said Chief Dio, and not all change since that tragic night has been positive.

    Attrition tied to the city's budget woes has diminished the department staffing from 460 to 415, and companies now routinely answer calls with three firefighters instead of four.

    Answering calls with down-sized companies increases the risk of firefighter injury and hampers firefighting, Chief Dio said.

    "You're more likely to have someone get hurt" when three men are carrying a hose instead of four, he said. "And we're more likely to call a second alarm just to get enough people at the scene."

    But firefighters now have a better idea what awaits them at a fire because of an extensive computer archive of the city's abandoned building stock compiled by Fire Prevention.

    Improved radios mean firefighters can more reliably talk to each other without concern that water will shut down their microphones and set off alarms, as happened in the warehouse fire.

    The department's 10 infrared cameras gives them eyes they did not have the night of Dec. 3, 1999.

    The exterior of abandoned buildings have been marked with an X. Interiors have been photographed and mapped, and any unusual contents or structural flaws have been noted. The information has been entered into the department's computer system and is available to incident commanders at the scene.

    The department's trucks and other equipment will be replaced or refurbished as part of a 15-year capital plan Chief Dio has instituted. One aerial scope truck is being overhauled at a cost of $650,000, about $150,000 less than the cost of buying new.

    And the department's firefighting philosophy has shifted.

    Before the warehouse fire, the WFD was known for aggressively attacking fires. The men went into the warehouse that night, in part, to look for rumored occupants, but also to find the source of the fire and put it out.

    As a result of the warehouse fire, and the devastating toll the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center took on the New York City Fire Department, Chief Dio said, firefighters in Worcester and around the country are better trained to take care of themselves.

    "There's a greater emphasis on self-preservation," he said. "Once we were more concerned about going in and saving people and less concerned about our own welfare," the chief said. "We're still going to save people, but now, instead of just charging into a building, we make sure the risk is worth the effort."

    Today, without evidence that a burning building is occupied, the department's firefighting approach puts a priority on the safety of the firefighters, Chief Dio said.

    "If there isn't a life involved, we're going to say, "Let's back off here and try fighting this from the outside,'" he said.

    As for the department's operations, Chief Dio said changes are coming, but would not discuss specifics.

    "We're still in the process of working things out and I don't want people to read this stuff first in the newspaper," he said. "But we are going to be doing some things differently. Many issues are involved, including working conditions."

    Chief Dio has made improved physical fitness a cornerstone of his tenure. His fitness campaign is fueled by the fact that heart attack is the leading killer of firefighters, and that his department is relatively old. The average age of Worcester's firefighters is 44, with 16 years on the job.

    While the accumulated experience is invaluable, the chief worries about a firefighting force of largely middle-aged men.

    "These are not 30-year-old guys going into a burning building," said Chief Dio, who turned 50 this year. "I know I want to leave this job healthy, not because of a heart attack. The golden years aren't so golden if you're not healthy."

    With the help of a $130,000 federal grant, city fire stations are equipped with exercise machinery such as treadmills. Exercise is not mandatory but is highly recommended.

    Chief Dio keeps himself physically fit in part to be a role model for the firefighters, but also because, as chief, he is the department's ambassador to the citizenry, he said.

    "People shouldn't look at their fire chief and wonder if he can make it up the ladder," he said.

    Story Continued Below

    Photo Worcester Chief Gerard Dio

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    Administrator Neil's Avatar
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    Sense of loss is undiminished

    The nearly two-year debate over how to honor the six firefighters lost in the Cold Storage fire has been a heart-wrenching process. But in the end, the Worcester Fire Fighters Memorial Committee chose a seven-acre parcel in Institute Park for a memorial site.

    Earlier this month the city approved the plan and gave the committee permission to use a section of the park that backs up to the Fire Department's headquarters property on Grove Street.

    Once the memorial is completed, the site will be turned back to the city.

    Michael J. Donoghue, chairman of the memorial committee, which includes firefighters as well as family members of the deceased firefighters, said only one issue framed the siting debate: whether to build a memorial where the men had died on Franklin Street.

    "We went through an awful lot of heated discussions ... emotional discussions," Mr. Donoghue said. "When it came to picking the site it was heart-wrenching. How could Franklin Street not be our first choice? It was sacred ground."

    But the vacant lot where the six-story warehouse once stood came attached with a multitude of negatives that finally rendered it impossible for the committee to select as the memorial site.

    "First off, it's not owned by the city," Mr. Donoghue said, noting that several families of the deceased firefighters have sued owner Tony Kwan in connection with the fire. Although the city struck a tentative deal with Mr. Kwan last week to purchase the site for $900,000, with the goal of building a fire station on the site to replace the station at Brown Square, there were still other variables to be considered.

    "The place is not easy to get to," Mr. Donoghue said. "It's in a depressed neighborhood. It's 45 feet below the expressway, and there's no air circulation for trees and shrubs to grow. When we analyzed both sites, it became clear that Institute Park was better."

    The committee voted unanimously for Institute Park, Mr. Donoghue said. The subsequent city council approval gave the committee access to the land.

    "That never happened before," he said.

    With the council vote, the first major memorial hurdle had been crossed.

    Overcoming wetland and other environmental concerns associated with the site will be the next hurdle, Mr. Donoghue said; the committee has already begun to address them.

    "We are very sensitive to the wetland issue," he said. "We've already done a lot of preliminary work, talking to engineers and the DPW. We're not going to get into trouble like the school board did with Green Hill Park."

    He referred to the long-delayed approval of a new vocational school on a site that included two acres of land in Green Hill Park and the proximity of a vernal pool.

    "We're building in a park, we understand that," he said. "The memorial will be the centerpiece. People will be able to say this is a special place."

    In the coming months, the city will undertake a master plan assessment of Institute Park, including the effects a memorial would have on the rest of the park.

    "The memorial will enhance the park even more," Mr. Donoghue said. "It will enhance the entire north end of the city."

    The committee will now choose a jury and solicit the first round of proposals for the memorial, a process that could get under way as soon as January or February, Mr. Donoghue said.

    "The first round is open to all," Mr. Donoghue said. "We expect we'll get proposals from high school kids, from professionals, from anybody really, anywhere in the world."

    The jury will reduce the initial proposals to a finalist field of four or five. From those, the committee will award a contract, Mr. Donoghue said.

    "It's time to honor our own," Mr. Donoghue said.

    Mr. Donoghue said he thought it would be at least two years before the memorial is built. He would not venture to estimate its cost.

    "Whatever it costs, I'm confident we'll be able to raise it," Mr. Donoghue said. "The firefighters will not be forgotten. It's time to honor our own."

    A movie based on journalist Sean Flynn's account of the fire, "3000 Degrees: The True Story of a Deadly Fire and the Men Who Fought It" is in the works.

    "Hollywood will do their thing," Mr. Donoghue said. "I just hope it's accurate. I don't want to see them put things in that movie that aren't accurate."

    Chief Dio said he is neutral about the making of the movie, but is not anxious to have it open at a nearby multiplex.

    "I probably won't go to see it when it comes out," the chief said. "There are too many memories of what really happened to look at a movie."

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