Worcester firefighters mark second anniversary of tragedy while sharing New York's grief

Associated Press
Monday, December 3, 2001







WORCESTER, Mass. - As he watched the World Trade Center collapse on television, Mike McNamee's mind reeled back to the night six firefighters under his command were killed battling a warehouse blaze.

"I knew right away there were at least 100 dead firefighters," he said. His count was short by 243.

"My gut churned. It just dropped," he said.

As Worcester firefighters prepare to mark the second anniversary of their own tragedy with a simple ceremony Monday, they're also sharing the grief of New York City firefighters in a very personal way.

"I knew they were going to be numb that day and stay that way for a very long time," Capt. Robert Johnson said. "I felt the same sense of loss on Sept. 11 that I had on Dec. 3, 1999. Those feelings - that numbness - came right back."

Signs that the two tragedies coexist for this city and its fire department are as tangible as they are emotional.

McNamee, a district chief, has three stickers on the rear window of Car 3, his assigned sport utility vehicle. One commemorates "Our Fallen Heroes." Another reads "WTC." The third is a tribute to "New York City's Bravest."

At the Central Division firehouse, which lost two firefighters in the Dec. 3 calamity, a few men discuss ordering more "FDNY" stickers. The station has run out, and some members still want to put them on their helmets - right next to the "W-6" stickers they attached two years ago.

New York City has "Ground Zero." Worcester has "The Site."

"This is sacred ground for us," McNamee said, looking over the 19,000-square-foot area where the Worcester Cold Storage building no longer stands.

All that's left of the six-story warehouse are pieces of rubble spread over the open space, remains of what had been the nation's largest loss of firefighters in a building fire since the 1970s.

Killed in the blaze were Paul A. Brotherton, 41; Joseph T. McGuirk, 38; James F. Lyons III, 34; Lt. Thomas E. Spencer, 42; Timothy P. Jackson, 51, and Jeremiah M. Lucey, 38.

They went into the abandoned building to search for a homeless couple believed to be inside, but became trapped and disoriented in a maze that instantly flooded with smoke.

The homeless couple, who allegedly left the building after accidentally knocking over a candle that sparked the blaze, never reported the fire. Manslaughter charges against them were dropped.

"There aren't a lot of firefighters looking for a pound of flesh," McNamee said. "It was an accidental fire, but the bad part of this is that they didn't call to say they weren't in there. That could've made all the difference. We could've just knocked the fire down in a few minutes and it would've been a routine call."

Many of the Worcester firefighters are uncomfortable talking about their loss with outsiders. Those who do say the tragedy has made them better husbands, fathers or friends.

It's also made them safer firefighters.

In October, the Worcester Fire Department hosted a three-day training course that focused on firefighter safety. Firefighters from 34 states came.

The department also has been marking abandoned industrial buildings with an "X" if they are deemed too risky to enter during a fire. Those signs will be ignored if people are inside.

"All these years, the focus has always been on saving other people," McNamee said. "Now we're paying attention to ourselves. Firefighters need to know what to do when we get into trouble."

Firefighters say the department's intense training during the past two years has moved them on from the tragedy. They say it has helped them focus on doing a better job instead of wallowing in misery.

But their memories of loss and grief still smolder, and were stoked by the terrorist attacks.

"When I heard the excavators clearing away debris at Ground Zero, it was the same sound I heard here two years ago," said Worcester Fire Chief Gerard Dio. Dio was asked to spend Sept. 12 at the New York City attack site, offering whatever help he could.

"And the smell - that diesel smell - it was just the same. What happened in New York was a million times worse than what happened here, but it just brings back the memories," he said.

Like the World Trade Center attack, the Worcester tragedy forged a sense of solidarity among the nation's firefighters. Six days after the Worcester fire, 30,000 firefighters, 10,000 civilians and then-President Clinton gathered for a memorial service.

Hundreds of people turned out for a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the fire. On Monday, the department will have another simple service at 6:13 p.m. - the time the first alarm was struck on Dec. 3, 1999.

"We don't want a big hullabaloo with a bunch of politicians speaking," said Inspector John Carey. "We don't want it to be a circus."

No matter how low-key the ceremony, the tragedy is not about to fade from the city's memory.

The fence separating the fire site from Franklin and Arctic streets doubles as a shrine to the fallen firefighters, draped with T-shirts from fire departments as near as Fitchburg and as far as San Francisco.

"Nobody can know exactly what a firefighter goes through except another firefighter," McNamee said. "Nobody else knows what it's like to be in a burning building with the heat pushing down on you like a weight."

Because of that bond they feel with their New York comrades, scores of Worcester firefighters said they'd be willing to help with the city's recovery efforts.

At the New York fire department's request, busloads of Worcester firefighters went to the city after Sept. 11 - not to help recover bodies, but to attend memorial services and funerals.

"I don't think it would've been healthy for our guys to go to Ground Zero," Dio said. "When you've been through something like that - collecting bodies - you don't need to do it again. It sticks with you forever."