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Thread: Haunting memories spurred chief to action

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    Haunting memories spurred chief to action

    Sunday, November 29, 2009

    Haunting memories spurred chief to action
    FORMER DISTRICT CHIEF MCNAMEE REFLECTS


    By Scott J. Croteau TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
    scroteau@telegram.com

    VIDEO LINK
    http://link.brightcove.com/services/...id=50009263001
    WORCESTER — The musty odor from an old cardboard box emanates throughout a back room in the home of retired District Fire Chief Michael O. McNamee.

    For Chief McNamee, the box holds the sounds of fire engines and the acrid smell of smoke from the night six of his brother firefighters died.

    Inside is a collection of newspaper articles, videotapes and memorabilia from the Dec. 3, 1999, Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire. He reorganized the box seven years ago and clipped out articles to put in the box from old newspapers. By the end of that morning, Chief McNamee was emotionally drained.

    “By the end of the day I felt I had gone 10 rounds with a heavyweight,” said Chief McNamee, 59, who retired in October. “Emotionally it just drags you back. We all have been trying to move forward since this thing, not move away from it, but you got to move forward.”

    After the deaths of their comrades, several firefighters retired. They could stay no more.

    But Chief McNamee, who made the decision to end search operations for the firefighters, knew he couldn't retire. Something had to be done to carry on the memory of the men.

    “I knew because there was unfinished business to do,” he said.

    The Worcester Fire Department was reeling after the fire. Confidence was splintered, and the realization that firefighters could die on the job moved from the back of their minds to the forefront.

    Chief McNamee, like others, felt they had failed the Worcester Six that night because they weren't able to get the men out. Chief McNamee was the fire official who called off the search and stopped other firefighters from re-entering the building the night of the fire.

    But the firefighters didn't hunker down. They didn't roll over. They found a way to fight back, Chief McNamee said.

    Training methods to deal with safety were introduced, such as the use of Rapid Intervention Teams, which are designated to find firefighters in trouble. Fire officials studied hazardous buildings, but also realized Worcester wasn't the only community with large, abandoned warehouses. Lessons could be taught to other departments across the country.

    A nucleus of fire officials began speaking about the fire and the lessons they learned battling the blaze. Chief McNamee, District Chief Walter C. Giard and Fire Chief Gerard A. Dio were among the group that talked about the Dec. 3 fire to departments nationwide. That duty has now been passed to District Fire Chief John F. Sullivan.

    “We learned a lot. We changed a lot. We trained a lot more and a lot differently than we ever had before,” Chief McNamee said. “It rocked the fire service nationally, actually internationally. It really made people kind of take a step back and think about what we are doing and how we are doing it.”

    Jersey City, N.J., was one stop for the fire officials. About a year later, Jersey City had a major warehouse fire near the Holland Tunnel. Firefighters pulled two homeless men from the blaze.

    Chief McNamee remembers talking to a fire official after the 2002 blaze.

    “He said if it wasn't for Worcester we would have lost 10 guys,” Chief McNamee recalled.

    The seminars ultimately took their toll on Chief McNamee. Every talk brought him back to that December night, to the days of searching for his fallen brothers. After about five years of speaking, he decided to stop.

    Chief McNamee looks down at the plain brown cardboard box, about 18 inches wide, 2 feet long and 18 inches deep. It is packed full of different items.

    He flips through photograph albums of the fire — pictures of flames reaching high into the night sky, piles of rubble, then a shot of him, dressed in gear, a foot pressed against a wall.

    That was right before the press briefing, when he coined the phrase “building from hell.”

    Chief McNamee remembers saying to then Fire Chief Dennis L. Budd, “How do you want me to handle this?”

    Chief Budd said, “Tell them what happened.”

    “What a monster it became,” Chief McNamee said, looking at the fire photographs.

    “That smoke was so acrid even after. Sometimes it was — guys will tell you — yellow, sometimes it had a greenish hue to it, sometimes it had a bluish hue to it.”

    Chief McNamee received therapy at the On-Site Academy — formerly in Westminster, now in Gardner — for critical incident stress management.

    “It was the saddest time of my life. It was also the proudest I've ever been,” he said. “The way the fire service pulled together.”

    He recalled fire companies coming from all over to help Worcester.

    Chief McNamee retired on his own terms. He has seen people stay too long and instead of loving the job, it becomes a grind.

    “I didn't want that to happen,” he said. “I chose when I was going to retire, and I left with a smile and with the fact that I believe that our efforts made the department a much better place while we were there.”

    Chief McNamee will never forget the night of Dec. 3. It was a life-altering event and part of who he is. The memory of that night is tucked away in its proper place, in a corner of his heart.

    “Every year, starting when we get around to approaching Thanksgiving, I can feel myself getting knocked a little bit off stride because Dec. 3 is coming around,” he said, his fire-worn helmet nearby. “I still remember the smells that night, the sounds that night. That will always be there.”

    Contact Scott Croteau by e-mail at scroteau@telegram.com.
    http://www.telegram.com/article/2009...911290432/1116
    Picture
    Retired District Fire Chief Michael O. McNamee holds a photo album of the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire. (T&G Staff/TOM RETTIG)

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    Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Fire link


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