It was fitting and proper that the 2009 Massachusetts Firefighter of the Year Award Ceremony was moved to Worcester from Boston this year as a way to acknowledge the 10th anniversary of the loss of the Worcester Six.
It’s a good thing the house lights in the Hanover Theater, where the ceremony was held, were dimmed much of the time as dry eyes were the exception rather than the rule as tributes of triumphs and tragedies were acknowledged.
Dozens of awards were presented for courage, personal sacrifice and community service including the posthumous presentation of the Medal of Honor to the late Boston Lt. Kevin M. Kelley, who was killed in a ladder truck accident in January.
But it was mostly Worcester’s day to take the spotlight, with everyone from the reverend giving the invocation to the wife of the late Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy on hand to speak.
Massachusetts State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan offered a stirring tribute to the fallen Worcester firefighters, saying their loss represents the darkest days of his career as the Commonwealth’s top firefighter.
“Only a few times in Massachusetts’ history has a fire of this magnitude had such an impact on the citizens of Massachusetts as well as people across the nation and around the world,” Coan said, as images of the tragic fire were projected on a large screen above him.
Coan, who was there on the scene early and stayed late, said firefighters from all over the state offered assistance in the eight days of recovery that followed.
“Those eight days and the funeral of the six fallen firefighters mark the darkest days of my career as state fire marshal,” he said. “I still become emotional when talking about the loss of these six men.”
In the wake of the “devastating loss,” the fire taught the fire service the importance of firefighter safety and the huge problem of abandoned and vacant buildings.
“We now intensively train for what we hope will never happen again,” Coan said. “Using the best tactics and strategies that have been developed, important new regulations have been passed to require the securing of vacant buildings and the establishment of statewide marking systems to alert firefighters to dangerous conditions.”
Coan said that while “good progress” has been made to achieve the goals, there’s still room for improvement.
“We’re never finished and there is more to do,” Coan said. “Our work, in the name of these and all great firefighters, will continue. We made the decision to move our annual ceremony here this year as a small part of never forgetting the Worcester 6: Lt. James F. Lyons; Lt. Thomas E. Spencer; Firefighter Paul A. Brotherton; Firefighter Timothy P. Jackson, Firefighter Jeremiah M. Lucey; Firefighter Joseph T. Mcguirk.”
Coan then asked for the house light to go up and asked the family members to stand for the audience to show their support.
There was a full 30 seconds of applause with thousands of attendees on their feet in a standing ovation.
“On Dec. 11, 1999,” Coan reminded. “President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Senator Edward Kennedy and over 40,000 firefighters came to Worcester that day. And together, we grieved as an extended family.”
Coan said that Kennedy, as Massachusetts’ senior senator and a champion of the fire service, spoke at the memorial and offered words of comfort and encouragement. He said it was fitting to listen to his words again. A recording of his speech was broadcasted throughout the theater as images of the memorial service projected on the screen.
“Today, our souls ache for the loss of James, Jeremiah, Joseph and Paul and Timothy and Thomas,” Kennedy said in the recording. “Six good and decent men. Strong men and magnificent public servants who gave their lives unselfishly and courageously in the line of duty. Every day, they accept the peril of their jobs with unflinching hearts and unwavering spirits. They faced dangers on a daily basis that few of us could ever imagine. Time and time again, they battled fires, rescued children, saved lives and returned to the firehouse with the pride of knowing they truly did make the difference. Those who were lost and those who carry on represent the proud legacy of Massachusetts firefighters. …They did the job they love to do and now we must pray that memory will see us through.”
Coan, who annually has an award he presents, made the award to Kennedy, whom he called a true friend of the fire service. Kennedy’s wife, Vicki accepted the award, a framed copy of the poem “May They Not Be Forgotten,” by James McNulty, FDNY retired.
In accepting the award, Kennedy said her late husband, who died in August, “would have been so honored and humbled” to be recognized.
“Even if he hadn’t received this award, he would have been here today,” she said. “That’s why I am here today. He had such admiration and respect for the extraordinary, heroic work the firefighters do.”
Kennedy focused a large portion of her speech on the Worcester Six, praising them for their sacrifices.
“How hard it is to believe that 10 years has passed since six of your brothers died on a cold night here in Worcester,” Kennedy said. “That provided such indelible witness to bravery in tragedy. We’ve heard their names and I’ll say them again; Paul Brotherton, Timothy Jackson, Jeremiah Lucey, James Lyons, Joseph Mcguirk and Thomas Spencer. Their names are a… legion of honor. They were husbands and sons, fathers and brothers and they were friends to each other and so many they left behind.”
Kennedy shared a letter that her husband had read at the Dec. 11, 1999, memorial service. It was a letter his father had written to a friend who lost a son.
“ I remembered how Ted’s voice cracked as he softly found his faith as these words echoed,” Kennedy said and read the letter. “’When one of your loved ones goes out of your life, you think of what he might have done with a few more years, and you wonder what you are going to do with the rest of yours.
Then, one day because there’s a world to be lived in you find yourself part of it, trying to accomplish something. Something he did not have enough time to and perhaps that is the reason for it all. I hope so,’ his father wrote.”
“That was Ted’s hope a decade ago and that is my hope today,” Kennedy said. “To the families of the brave firefighters we lost 10 years ago, again, we share your sorrow and also your pride. And, although we face a world without them, this world is immeasurably ennobled by their service. They gave so much. Ten years later, we continue to look ahead as they would wish us to and we see that it is our own good works that will keep them near.”