Like thunder rolling through a valley, the heavy beat of the pipe and drum brigade reverberated off buildings in downtown Worcester, advancing to the site.
More than 1,400 uniformed firefighters marched up Franklin Street to the location of the former Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co., now transformed into a brand new fire station. Some 60 bagpipers and 20 drummers kept the sea of dress-blue uniformed firefighters and the cadre of flag-bearing color guard members in cadence. The procession, comprised of units from all over New England and New York, stretched a city block before stopping in front of the Franklin Street fire station. Right face. Parade rest.
It was time.
Time to pay tribute to the six fallen Worcester fighters who lost their lives in a building that had been called “straight from Hell.” They were lost looking for homeless people reportedly in the building.
“Atten-TION,” the marshal called to the troops. In the silence, a dispatcher’s voice crackled over the loud speaker system as a recording of the initial alarm was played.
“The Worcester fire alarm striking box 1483, Franklin and Arctic streets, reported building fire,” the dispatcher with a New England accent said. “Engine 1, Engine, 6, Engine 12, Engine 13, Ladder 1, Ladder 5, the rescue company, and Car 3, take the box. Time out 18:13.”
Nearly to the minute, hundreds of firefighters and thousands of spectators and family members gathered to pay their respects on the 10-year anniversary of the Dec. 3, 1999 tragedy.
Worcester Fire Chief Gerard Dio called out each of the names of the Worcester Six at the microphone.
“Lt. Thomas Spencer,” Dio said, and a brightly polished nickel bell tolled. “Lt. Timothy Jackson; dong. Firefighter Paul Brotherton; dong. Firefighter Jeremiah Lucey; dong. Lt. James Lyons; dong. Firefighter Joseph McGuirk; dong.
As each name was read, family members placed wreaths on the memorial in front of the station. The silence was broken only by a 21-gun salute and the playing of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. Three news choppers hovered overhead and the world beyond Worcester also remembered the fallen.
It was also a night of words by several speakers on the elevated platform erected in front of the bay door apron, with apparatus adorned with black bunting serving as a backdrop. The governor, the congressman, the chief, the clergy, the union boss, the city manager, the celebrity. All were at the ready to offer words of remembrance and thanks for the sacrifice.
In the invocation, Most Reverend Daniel P. Reilly, Bishop Emeritus of Worcester offered words of comfort.
“The lord speaks his words to us today as a reminder that there is no greater love than the laying down of one’s life for one’s friends,” Bishop Reilly said. “For the firefighter, your friends happen to be any one trapped in a burning structure, or anyone supposedly trapped in a burning structure. … As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the six brave men who entered the world of the Worcester Cold Storage building, laying down their lives for unknown friends, we ask God to strengthen and bless their families and their fellow firefighters.”
Worcester’s native son Denis Leary, who made it big in show business as an actor and comedian, took to the podium to offer some words. Leary, founder of The Leary Firefighters Foundation, has been instrumental in securing $2.5 million for Worcester for fire training, using personal money as well. Leary’s cousin Jeremiah Lucey perished in the blaze as did his friend Thomas Spencer.
“I just want to say, number one, this is the greatest firehouse I have ever been in my entire life,” said Leary, who is the star and co-creator of the television show Rescue Me about a fictional FDNY fire crew. “I don’t know if you’ve been in there but the bathroom is literally the size of Fenway Park. You could fit about 25 guys in there. I’m not kidding.”
Leary said the fire station is a fitting memorial to his cousin, friend and all of the fallen firefighters. He also said that for the people who were in Worcester 10 years ago, there are some images seared in their memories; some they wish they could forget, and others they should never forget, particularly of the ones who have been lost.
“People are sometimes afraid to come up and talk to you about it,” Leary said. “In my case, my cousin. They might in passing mention it. They figure you don’t want to talk about that person, that night or what happened or what they did. And I feel the opposite. What happened that night is something that needs to be mentioned all the time. I love mentioning my cousin’s name. I love talking about what he did and the other five guys here.”
“I speak as a citizen here now when I say we really can’t say enough to thank you guys for choosing this job,” Leary said. “I know my cousin loved this job so much he had a Backdraft pinball machine in his basement. I know you guys love what you do. But I’m just here to tell you guys, the people you protect, we love what you do and thank God you guys are firefighters. Without you, we’d be lost.”
Massachusetts Lt. Governor Timothy Murray, who is a Worcester native and former mayor and city manager, offered words of remembrance as well.
“Before 1999, December 3 was just another day on the calendar for most,” said Murray, who still lives in Worcester. “Not any more. …While we can never forget the pain, the loss and the heroism of that night, we do endure. Life goes on, children grow, families find the spirit to enjoy the lives they have, as they should. …What was impossible in the agony of Dec. 3, 1999, now takes shape and that is the realization that we are not defined by our grief, but by our faith. The faith in the bonds of a brotherhood that is stronger than fire.”
Robert McCarthy, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, was on the platform as a speaker as well. He offered words from various fire union associations.
“We are here tonight because we are a family, each and every one you is part of the firefighters’ family,” McCarthy said. “I want to thank and acknowledge the Worcester Six and our love for all of you.”
McCarthy also read a letter sent by retired Worcester Fire Chief Dennis Budd who couldn’t attend the event.
Budd, who was the overall incident commander of the devastating fire, said the events of that fateful night will never be forgotten, nor should they.
“What happened here on Dec. 3, 1999, what happened during the nine consecutive days and nights until we recovered the last of our fallen brothers will live with us as long as time,” Budd said in his letter.
The last person to speak was the man who took over from Budd upon his retirement, Chief Dio, who has held the position for the past nine years.
“For the past 10 years, we have been returning to this site in remembrance of our comrades and friends who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their community they swore to protect,” Dio said.
“Tonight I am asking you to look past your sorrow and instead focus on the fact that, although the flames of that raging inferno have long been extinguished, a spark from that blaze continues to burn through the nationwide mission that grew from the desire and the need of so many to ensure that a tragedy such as this would never be repeated.”
Dio said the Fire Act grant program was largely a result of Worcester’s fire and the legislation that gave more support on the national level for the fire service.
“To all of you, we give our heartfelt thanks, because of the commitment of all of you who were called into action, the lives of our fallen brothers, Paul, Tim, Jim, Jerry, Joe, Tom, were not lost in vain.”
As the service wound down, and the color guard and rank and file processed down the route from whence they came, there were few tears. Mostly hugs, pats on the back, large warm smiles and fist bumps among old friends. The exceptionally mild December night gave it an air of a street festival, lacking only a band. A newly rebuilt diner, replacing the one flattened during the recovery of the fallen six, emitted aromas of grilled beef and bacon. Red Cross workers doled out refreshment to the participants and spectators.
Then, an impromptu and unofficial, and even perhaps accidental, tribute happened.
Six white balloons, tied together, ascended and faded into the black sky of night.