Wednesday, December 3, 2003

City OKs plan for site of '99 blaze

'Sacred ground' to house fire station Worcester to acquire site of warehouse fire

By Nick Kotsopoulos

WORCESTER- On the eve of the fourth anniversary of the fire tragedy at the former Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building, the City Council last night embraced a plan to have the city acquire the Franklin Street property and build a new fire station there.

The city wants to build a fire station on the site, where six firefighters died battling the warehouse fire, to replace the aging Brown Square station and to also serve as the new location of the Fire Department's administrative offices.

Mayor Timothy P. Murray called the site "sacred ground" and said the construction of a new fire station there will serve as a living legacy to the fallen firefighters.

"It's great news that we were able to strike a deal to acquire this site," Mr. Murray said. "All of us recognized that in some way we needed to protect it. It's been a difficult process and it's not done yet. But we have made a significant step to preserve this site, and the new fire station will be a living legacy to remind us what these six firefighters did for our community."

Lts. James F. "Jay" Lyons III, Thomas E. Spencer and Timothy P. Jackson, and Firefighters Paul A. Brotherton, Jeremiah M. Lucey and Joseph T. McGuirk died in the Dec. 3, 1999, blaze that was started when a homeless couple taking shelter in the vacant warehouse knocked over a candle.

One year ago today, the City Council approved an order introduced by Mr. Murray that called on the city administration to explore all possibilities for acquiring the Franklin Street site. The property, which is owned by Framingham developer Ding On "Tony" Kwan, is east of Interstate 290, in the shadow of the elevated portion of the highway that runs through the heart of the city.

Following the council's cue, City Manager Thomas R. Hoover, working with the mayor, negotiated a deal with Mr. Kwan to purchase the property. Under the terms of the deal, the city would take about one acre of the 1.5-acre property by eminent domain and would pay Mr. Kwan $900,000.

Mr. Hoover said he will ask the council to adopt an order for the land-taking after the city receives a clean title report and verification that the expense of any environmental remediation of the property will be minimal, as has been suggested based on the previous use of the property.

The city would demolish the remaining building on the property, making way for a new fire station. Mr. Kwan, meanwhile, would retain ownership of 21,804 square feet of the property.

Mr. Hoover said the order for the formal acquisition of the property, as well as the associated finance item, will be presented to the City Council for its approval during the first three months of next year.

"This was a good team effort," Mr. Hoover said. "This will hold this ground sacred and hold it for a department that was so involved in this tragedy."

District 2 Councilor Philip P. Palmieri credited the mayor for playing an instrumental role in the negotiations with Mr. Kwan. He said Mr. Murray was able to help move the negotiations forward when things got bogged down.

"The mayor's efforts to bring this back were absolutely essential to make this happen," Mr. Palmieri said. "This is a momentous occasion. We will have a fire station on this site that will be second to none in New England."

District 3 Councilor Paul P. Clancy Jr. said it was meaningful for the council to look forward regarding the future use of the warehouse site on the eve of the tragedy.

"This site represents the spirit and valor of our fallen firefighters," Mr. Clancy said. "It is such an important and symbolic location. I'm glad all parties were able to come together on this. I can't think of a better place for this (new fire station)."

Fire Chief Gerard A. Dio said the site holds a special spot in firefighters' hearts. He said it will be remembered as the spot where six men gave their all to the community.

Firefighter Frank P. Raffa, president of Local 1009, International Association of Fire Fighters, thanked all the parties involved for making the deal a reality.

"There are six smiling faces in the heavens saying thank you," Firefighter Raffa said.