"It's hard to believe it's been a decade... and it doesn't make it any easier," actor Denis Leary told Firehouse.com on the approach of the 10th anniversary of the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse Fire, which claimed the lives of six firefighters in his hometown of Worcester, Mass. in 1999.
"My cousin Jerry Lucey was one of the six guys that were lost that day and another one of my best friends from growing up, Tommy Spencer, was also killed." The other four firefighters were Paul A. Brotherton, Joseph T. McGuirk, Timothy P. Jackson Sr., and James F. 'Jay' Lyons III.
Numerous other friends from Leary's past, including others who had become firefighters, were affected by the local tragedy. "I don't know what word to use to describe it... it was a strange experience," Leary said.
He marks the event privately with family each year, but planned to take part in this year's public 10-year ceremony. "I think it's very, very important to remind people how brave those men were that day and how even as we speak, there are firemen somewhere saving somebody's life, or about to save somebody's life, or having just finished the job," he said.
After the incident, Leary wanted to help the Worcester Fire Department recover, and before long he had created The Leary Firefighters Foundation.
"My cousin Jerry was very active in training and he'd always complain about the lack of training facilities and equipment... so that was our original goal to honor Jerry's memory... and we set out to achieve certain things for the Worcester Fire Department," Leary said. "The dive and rescue team, which he had been involved with - their training facility had actually been condemned, which is ironic...We're very proud of the fact that we were able to help the team and build a facility behind the Grove St. firehouse."
Shortly after that, 9/11 happened, and with the help of friend and New York firefighter Terry Quinn, Leary stepped in to assist the FDNY.
"I think that's the only good thing about either one of those tragedies; that hopefully we've made a little dent in the training and equipping of these guys," Leary said.
It sounds like more than a dent. The foundation recently completed the first high rise simulator for the FDNY, which has now been up and running for a year. "It's amazing, in a city full of skyscrapers, they never had a high rise simulator where they could train in a building that mocks what it would be like to be in a skyscraper in any circumstance, whether it be a fire or a terror attack," Leary said.
The day they cut the ribbon on the building, Leary said firefighters in bunker gear were waiting around for the media event to end. "I thought boy, my speech must really suck, these guys are looking at their watches," Leary said. "In fact, they were waiting for us to get done so they could go in the building and start training in it. I think that speaks to how bad the need is, and at the same time how much gratitude you have for being able to build it, because it's something that makes a big difference for these guys."
Leary stressed that the foundation's activities are truly a team effort. "I'm just the face on the foundation," Leary said. "Really there are so many people, in Massachusetts and New York, in terms of private citizens who donate, and not to mention people like Terry Quinn and other friends of mine in the fire department here in New York and up in Worcester; guys who just went out of their way to help organize and to make sure that the red tape was cut so that we could get the money, and then actually build or buy the equipment that they needed."
Though proud, Leary was also humble about the foundation's work. "I think people love firefighters, so when you tell them that they need money or that there's not a training facility or that they're in need of a truck or a particular piece of equipment, people are generally shocked and very, very generous with their donations. That's all we're doing, really."