The first article -- this part of telegram.com should be free & available without a subscription.
The first article -- this part of telegram.com should be free & available without a subscription.
Costs .60 for a one day subscription
Odd...doesn't prompt me for a password to that part of the site, like it does to the rest...
Article below, by the way lots more there on the fire site that's well worth the $0.60!
Sunday, December 5, 2004
‘The pain is still there’
Recalling the tragedy of that fateful day
By Mark Melady
Telegram & Gazette Staff
Michael O. McNamee, who was district fire chief and commanding officer on the night of the Worcester Cold Storage fire five years ago, is shown walking at the site Friday and stopping at the locations where each of the six fallen firefighters were found.
(T&G Staff / BETTY JENEWIN)
WORCESTER— The McNamees and the Lyonses have been neighbors for 27 years, living in tidy houses separated by a narrow bend in Saxon Road and, these days, leaf piles that line the street like soggy barricades, but their lives are bound forever by years of friendship, a young boy’s passion to be a firefighter and the night of Dec. 3, 1999.
One recent gray afternoon, District Fire Chief Michael O. McNamee could have seen James F. Lyons pushing around his burgeoning leafy burden, but his back was turned to the window. Instead, he sat in his den remembering that terrible moment five years ago in the stairwell of the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. when he stopped the search for six lost firefighters, including James F. “Jay” Lyons III, the 34-year-old son of his neighbors who as a child was always after McNamee to be allowed to visit him at the station.
The years have put little distance between Chief McNamee and his memories or the Lyonses and their grief.
“We think of him every day,” Joan Lyons said of her son.
“The pain is still there,” James F. Lyons Jr. said. “The story isn’t complete yet for us. I don’t know if it ever will be. There’s a saying, ‘When you lose your parents you lose your past, but when you lose a child, you lose your future.’ ”
Chief McNamee said he thinks of that night, and the weeklong effort to recover the firefighters’ remains that followed, as often as 100 times in the course of a day. “Right out of the blue,” he said. “The thoughts don’t always stop me like they used to, but they’re still there.”
His wife, Joanne, said she believes her husband is “more aware of the world around him and doesn’t sweat the small stuff anymore.” Chief McNamee agreed to a point.
“I still feel like I have a heavy heart most of the time,” he said. “As firefighters we’ve had some tough scrapes and close calls, but if we all got to get on the truck and go home we considered it a win. That night when we all didn’t get to go home everything changed.”
Joan and James F. Lyons shown in their home last week. (T&G Staff / JIM COLLINS)
On the fire’s fifth anniversary, Chief McNamee, whose job it is now to ensure firefighter safety, and the Lyonses, who have been the most publicly active of the families, want to honor “the unremembered,” as Mr. Lyons called the 50 or 60 firefighters who were in the building that night trying to put out a fire that at one point “was like looking into the portal of a blast furnace,” as Chief McNamee described it. Those firefighters searched for the missing men in a foul, smoky blackness so pitch they couldn’t see their hands inches from their faces and so hot the smoke self-ignited. At times they crawled on the floor with no idea where they were or what was ahead of them, hanging onto each other hand-to-heel to stretch themselves another three or four feet in the hopes they would touch one of the missing men.
While the Lyonses are still deeply moved by the posthumous tributes bestowed on their son and the other dead firefighters, they are sensitive to the largely ignored heroism of others that night.
“We want to remember the unremembered,” Mr. Lyons said, holding a list of every firefighter who went into the warehouse Dec. 3. “Every one of them was a hero, and these men live with that night every day of their lives.”
Chief McNamee said the men who survived the inferno were forgotten in the natural focus on the families of the men who did not.
“It’s like they weren’t even there,” he said. “The ownership of this tragedy does not belong exclusively to the six who died. The ownership belongs to everyone in the building that night. There were so many acts of courage and bravery and no one really knows about it. Everyone in that building did things that saved lives. If they hadn’t done what they did we would have lost twice as many.”
Many of those firefighters are still haunted by their memories of that night, victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Chief McNamee said the Fire Department has made counselling available from the start. Many firefighters, including himself, have taken part.
“Some who haven’t should,” he said. “It reduces the trauma to ordinary memory. It’s every bit as sad, but you’re better able to handle it.”
It rained plastic outside the warehouse that night. Baked bits of black polystyrene fell on the dozen or so firefighters bunched in the stairwell doorway in full gear and air packs waiting for the next team to be sent up to search. Flames erupted volcanically into the night.
Most of the men already had made at least one ascent of that stairway. No radio transmission had been heard from the trapped men in more than half an hour. Fire Lt. James A. Pijus, now a district chief, came down the stairwell with two other searchers and said the heat was so intense they could not get beyond the third floor. It was 8 p.m. The search had been going on for an hour and 15 minutes. Chief McNamee had made his decision.
“It’s over,” he told the men.
They shouted angry dissent at their commander. A couple of firefighters began moving toward the door.
“I braced my feet and shoulders against the doorway,” Chief McNamee said. “No one wanted to quit, but I knew the chances were good that anybody I sent up there wasn’t coming back down. I told them we had already lost six men. We weren’t going to lose any more. It was like a collective kick in the gut. Their shoulders slumped, their hands hung by their sides. These were tough guys, but they felt like they had failed.”
Though he had told his wife a couple of weeks earlier as they drove by the warehouse that it “scares the hell out of me,” when he arrived at the fire, Chief McNamee was confident the fire, quickly pinpointed on the second floor, could be confined and doused.
“We did it by the numbers,” he said. “We located the source of the fire, laid hose, vented the roof (through skylights). Rescue was walking the building doing a search as they’re supposed to. The feeling was that if we got a couple of lines (hoses) to the second floor we could knock it down and be back at the station in time for roast beef.” A dinner roast had come out of the station oven as the first call came in at 6:13 p.m.
Still there were troubling aspects, not the least of which was the building itself, without windows and with very little structure inside to help orient firefighters. The handles on the doors were recessed, making it almost impossible to find by feel. Every 12 feet were columns, adding to the disorientation.
“Usually you can tell something about the fire by the amount of smoke, the color, the pressure,” Chief McNamee said. “This building revealed nothing. It kept all its secrets to itself.”
As he was arriving, he asked headquarters for all information on the building. The call came back that there wasn’t any. The men fighting the fire did not have a floor plan showing exits. They did not know that the walls of the former giant meat locker were coated with highly flammable petroleum-based products nor that there was six inches of cork insulation impregnated with a highly flammable material. They did not even know the number of floors. “Without windows there was no way to count,” Chief McNamee said.
They also did not know that a second stairwell at the rear of the building extended only to the third floor and was useless to men trapped two floors above.
“Men fought like dogs to keep the fire away from that stairwell for nothing,” Chief McNamee said.
He went up the first stairwell looking for any sign of fire on the third and fourth floors. He found none but experienced firsthand what he would later call the “building from hell.” Once inside the room he was taken by the eerie quiet. The insulation used to keep meat cold froze out sound.
“It was so quiet in there, it was like the world was somewhere else,” Chief McNamee said. He became disoriented almost immediately. “Without windows you have no way to judge how far you are from a wall.” He was unable to find the door to the stairwell because all the door handles were recessed.
“A draft opened a stairwell door a little,” he said. “Otherwise, I don’t know that I would have found it without help.”
At 6:35 p.m. a police officer radioed that he had been told homeless people might be in the building. Firefighters Jeremiah M. Lucey and Paul A. Brotherton moved from the roof to the fifth floor. About 10 minutes later, Firefighter Brotherton made his first distress call, reporting that he and Firefighter Lucey were lost.
“Rescue 600 to command, we’re two floors below the roof and we can’t find our way out,” Firefighter Brotherton radioed.
“He was cool as a cucumber,” recalled Chief McNamee. “My reaction was, ‘OK, let’s go get them.’ We’ve had men trapped before, and we know how to get them.”
Chief McNamee positioned himself at the base of the stairwell to act as the search gatekeeper . “I wanted to control who went up and down,” he said. “I didn’t want it to become chaotic.”
In 1973 as a young firefighter, six months on the job, Chief McNamee was at the Main Street rooming house fire that claimed 10 lives, the city’s worst fire. When he arrived from the former Winslow Street station (now Ed Hyder’s Mediterranean Market Place, 408 Pleasant St.) people were leaping from fourth- and fifth-floor windows. “Every window had somebody in it,” he said.
After the fire had been controlled but while firefighters were still working, the fifth floor collapsed through the fourth and third floors, burying three firefighters. The chief at the time allowed only the rescue units to dig for the men.
The firefighters were rescued, and a lesson in the importance of maintaining order in the midst of bedlam was ingrained in the young McNamee’s mind. “If we had all rushed over there it would have been chaotic,” he said.
Chief McNamee sent teams of two or three firefighters up the stairwell tethered to each other by rope. Firefighter Brotherton called to report their low air alarms had gone off, meaning they had from one to five minutes of air left and most likely it would be nearer the lower end.
“I knew if we didn’t find them in a couple of minutes it would take something miraculous for them to survive,” Chief McNamee said.
The calls from Firefighters Lucey and Brotherton became more desperate. They were sharing one mask. They could not breathe.
“We heard them die,” Chief McNamee said.
Meanwhile, Lt. Thomas E. Spencer had radioed that he and Firefighter Timothy P. Jackson had hooked up with Firefighters Joseph T. McGuirk and Lyons and were making a sweep of the fifth floor. At 7:15, Lt. Spencer called in to say they were running low on air.
“Send someone up to fifth floor and tell him to start singing,” Lt. Spencer said. It would be the last words Chief McNamee heard from the four.
As more firefighters poked through the smoke, they yelled and sent their flashlight beams futilely into the blackness. They banged their steel Halligan tools — pry-bar like devices they use to force open doors — against the steel stairs, sending up an earsplitting clanging. The noise and the light turned around several searching firefighters who were moving deeper into the abyss believing they were returning to the stairwell.
“I heard one crew yelling at each other, ‘This way, no, this way,’ ” Chief McNamee said. “It was an evil building.”
The light and the noise and the stretched-out hands of the searchers elicited no response.
“We sent up round after round of searchers,” Chief McNamee said. “They came down, changed tanks and went back up.”
The minutes slipped by: five, 15, 20 and still no transmission from Lt. Spencer. Though a Mayday call was never heard, Chief McNamee knew they were without air. “There was no one alive up there,” he said. “It was no longer a rescue mission. It was recovery.”
What happened to Lt. Spencer and Firefighters Lyons, Jackson and McGuirk remains a mystery. Because no distress call was heard, Chief McNamee assumes whatever happened came suddenly, either a structural collapse or a flashover. He favors the latter.
“The fire wasn’t bad enough up there to cause a collapse,” he said. A flashover occurs when the smoke heats to the point of ignition, causing the entire room to flash with fire.
“When that happens, if you’re within five feet of a door you might be able to get out, otherwise your chances are very slim,” Chief McNamee said. Even if the four were within five feet of a door, they almost certainly did not know it.
When Lt. Pijus told Chief McNamee that he couldn’t get above the third floor, Chief McNamee did what might be called in an official report a risk-benefit analysis. “I knew there was absolutely no hope. It was time to stop.” He ended the search and ordered the building evacuated. The Worcester Fire Department, known in firefighting circles for its aggressive, get in and knock-it-down style and proud to a man that in its long history it had never left any of its own behind, retreated from the building and soon was reduced to pouring water.
Chief McNamee left the fire to personally deliver the awful news to the Lyonses and the Jacksons. His first stop was 30 Saxon Road. His wife, Joanne, was with her husband. She had driven to the fire when she saw on the crawl line on her television that two Worcester firefighters were missing. Together they headed up the familiar walkway to the Lyonses’ front door. Joan Lyons appeared in the doorway.
“Michael,” she asked. “Do you have bad news for me?”
Chief McNamee paused remembering that moment, one of many he has relived countless times in the last five years. “That was the first time she had ever called me Michael. Before that it was always Mike.”
Joan Lyons knew which scrapbook held the drawings done by her son Jay for a middle school assignment and with slightly strained wifely patience, guided her husband’s effort to retrieve it with a no dear and a yes dear. They were in the living room among Currier & Ives prints of firefighters and memorabilia of their son whose memory is never far from their thoughts.
Jay Lyons’ drawings, done about the time Mike McNamee moved next door, depicted his father teaching, his mother dressed in her nurse’s uniform and his sister Kathleen figure skating. He drew himself in firefighter’s gear climbing a ladder with a hose. “I want to be a firefighter,” reads the caption.
“Look at the number on the helmet,” directed Mrs. Lyons.
It is a bold and confident 3 for Engine Company 3. Jay Lyons wore a 3 on his helmet when he went to the fifth floor of the warehouse that night.
“I don’t remember him wanting to be anything but a firefighter,” Mr. Lyons said. “When Mike moved next door he was in heaven.”
“After we moved in and Jay found out I was a firefighter he just kept after me,” Chief McNamee said. “ ‘Can I come down for a visit, can I come down for a visit.’ He did. The visit lasted 10 years. Jay was a very, very good person. He had a great laugh.”
Once a month or so, James and Joan Lyons will be in their car returning from somewhere or out running errands and decide to drive over to the gravel lot on Franklin Street where their son died.
“We know the exact spot where Jay took his last breath,” Mr. Lyons said.
When the Lyonses visit the site, they are usually alone among the T-shirts, stuffed animals, plastic flowers and other mementos left by visitors, an outpouring that began the night of the fire when an old Worcester pumper was spontaneously decorated with flowers and amazingly continues five years later.
The chain-link-fenced lot remains a public grieving field, and the couple is sometimes joined by others and occasionally recognized as Jay Lyons’ parents.
“We feel bad if we don’t recognize them,” Mrs. Lyons said, “but we met so many people at so many events in the days and weeks after the fire it all seems a blur to us now.”
Mr. Lyons, known by the generations of Chandler Junior High School history students for his good humor, is quick to laugh and even quicker to get off a good line. A reporter visiting the Lyonses made the inevitable double pass on streets that seem endlessly to circle in on themselves. When Mr. Lyons saw the reporter several days later arriving to interview the McNamees, he looked up from his leaf pile and asked, “What, you never made it out?”
If it takes a lot to laugh, as Bob Dylan sang, it takes a train to cry, and the loss of their son has been a train wreck of the heart for the Lyonses.
“It hit us, it hit us really, really hard,” Mr. Lyons said, “and six months later, as people warned us, we really went down again.”
They have found solace in their church, Blessed Sacrament Church, strategies to cope from James Kelly’s lectures on loss, empathy and companionship from those who have lost children in Compassionate Friends, and strength from each other and their 47-year marriage.
“I like to say I’ve been married 94 years,” the irrepressible funny man said. “Her 47 and my 47.”
“I tell him, you use that line one more time and you’ll be married 46 years,” Mrs. Lyons responded.
“She’s been so strong,” the serious Mr. Lyons said. “I never would have gotten through this without her.”
The nation’s television eyes turned to Worcester captivated by a fire that sent firefighters to battle a blaze in a windowless mausoleum, then in an agonizingly futile search for trapped firefighters. The weeklong recovery of the remains — “cross-eyed tired firefighters” as Chief McNamee described them, armed with picks and shovels, as determined as Marines to carry their dead off the battlefield — attached a tragic fame to the families of the Worcester 6, as the men became emblematically known.
When the media glare faded, the families largely receded from public view to mourn in private and to begin rebuilding their emotional lives. Financially they would be comfortably secure for the rest of their lives because of the extraordinary generosity of Gardner schoolchildren and housewives from Ohio and corporations and charities and, it seemed, just about anyone who had ever passed by a fire station.
Boots and canisters and bank accounts filled beyond belief. One family crossed the line into notoriety when the three adult sons of Lieutenant Timothy P. Jackson from a first marriage sued to claim their share of the millions, but however the money affected the other families they kept it to themselves.
The widows joined efforts to identify and secure abandoned buildings, to create affordable housing and to build a permanent memorial to the firefighters. They supported actor Denis Leary’s firefighter fund-raising activities, including a celebrity hockey game. Michelle Lucey, widow of Firefighter Jeremiah M. Lucey, became the articulate, feisty voice opposing a Hollywood movie based on Sean Flynn’s account of the fire in “3000 Degrees: The True Story of a Deadly Fire and the Men Who Fought It,” a movie that was stopped virtually as the cameras were preparing to roll.
Denise Brotherton, widow of Firefighter Brotherton, and Patrick Spencer, son of Lt. Spencer, appeared in a three-minute video homage to the firefighters shown twice at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. All the families joined with the International Association of Fire Fighters in endorsing John F. Kerry’s presidential bid.
The Lyonses have been the most visible and most active of the families, speaking out on a broad range of issues even when their views put them at odds with other families, as they were regarding the movie and plans to build a new firehouse over the ashes of the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building.
While they endorsed the memorial design of six pillars emitting light, they opposed the plan to build a new fire station at the site. “It’s a spiritual place,” Mr. Lyons said. “It should be preserved in its natural state.”
Chief McNamee said he once agreed with Mr. Lyons, but now favors the fire station plan.
“CSX wanted to buy the land and park trucks on it,” he said. “At least we’ll be the caretakers of the site now.”
Both the Lyonses and Chief McNamee favored the movie, which was canceled by Warner Bros. in April as a production company was erecting sets in Toronto. The movie had been opposed by four families and the firefighters union on grounds it would open emotional wounds for the children.
Four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris had been signed to play Chief McNamee. Woody Harrelson had been signed to play Jay Lyons. Worcester native Scott Silver wrote the screenplay based on Mr. Flynn’s book.
“It’s a story that should be told,” Chief McNamee said.
Neither the Lyonses nor Chief McNamee hold any ill will for Julie King and Thomas S. Levesque, the homeless couple who ignited the warehouse fire when a squabble over sex tipped over a red candle. Chief McNamee still harbors one regret, however.
“He had a cell phone that he had used to make a couple of calls after they left the fire,” he said. “I just wished he made one of those calls to 911 and reported the fire.”
Thanks for the articles, Dal.......
just read the book. its an awesome book took me like 2 days.
Very sad. :(
I read the book a year or two ago ... cried an awful lot.
Thanks Dal........Rest in Peace Brothers.:(