Developer Settles With Worcester Fire Widows

The widows of four Worcester firefighters killed in a 1999 warehouse fire have reached a $1 million out-of-court settlement with property owner Ding On "Tony" Kwan of Framingham, a source said.

Widows Mary Louise Jackson, Kathleen Spencer, Michelle Lucey and Denise Brotherton dropped their multimillion dollar lawsuit against Kwan and signed an agreement in late October giving them $250,000 each, according to the source.

Kwan owns the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse where six firefighters perished four years ago today, Dec. 3, 1999.

Kwan confirmed the widows' lawsuit has been settled but declined to discuss any conditions.

"The lawsuit is over. I can't give any details," he said. "I have signed a confidentiality agreement and cannot say anything about it."

Phone calls to attorneys Amy Wanger of Winchester and Keith T. Higgins of Worcester, who represent Jackson, Spencer and Lucey, were not returned. A phone call to attorney Stephen Lipman of Boston, who represents Brotherton, also was not returned by presstime.

Denise Brotherton, whose husband firefighter Paul A. Brotherton, died in the Worcester blaze, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Contacted at her home last night, she said she had just returned from the wake of Lancaster firefighter Martin McNamara, who, like her husband, left a widow and children when he died last weekend in a house fire.

The settlement comes four years after the six men died in an inferno started by a homeless couple who were squatters in the vacant warehouse.

Fire Lts. Thomas E. Spencer and James F. Lyons and firefighters Brotherton, Timothy P. Jackson, Jeremiah M. Lucey and Joseph T. McGuirk died in the smoke-filled five story building located near Rte. 290 and Union Station.

Kwan's $1 million package to the widows includes $900,000 the city of Worcester is expected to pay him for an eminent domain taking of the Franklin Street lot and $100,000 from his own pocket, the source said.

The families of Lyons and McGuirk each accepted $166,667 from Kwan in 2002 and were not part of the current lawsuit.

Kwan said he is still haunted by the deaths of the six firefighters.

"They've always been heroes to me. Anyone who faces danger like they did and sacrifices their lives deserves our respect. I still pray for them and their families every day," he said.

The firefighters died after entering the 100,000-square-foot building looking for homeless people. The firefighters soon became lost in the heavy smoke from the fire.

Investigators later determined a homeless couple, Thomas Levesque and Julie Barnes, knocked over a candle during an argument and fled without reporting the fire.

The four widows were seeking up to $2.5 million each in a civil suit, claiming Kwan had been negligent about securing the property.

According to court records, the warehouse is owned by the CDB Trust, which Kwan owns.

After the fire Kwan insisted he had taken "every human step possible" to secure his property from the homeless or vandals scavenging for things to sell.

If the widows' suit had gone to court, Kwan's attorneys were expected to base their defense on a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report that found some firefighters had ignored basic safety procedures, and rescue efforts had been hampered by malfunctioning radios.

The Worcester City Council last night unanimously approved City Manager Thomas R. Hoover's proposal to pay Kwan $900,000 for the site in order to build a new fire station on the 43,750-square-foot plot. Kwan will keep a 21,800-square-foot portion of the site at the rear of the property.

Plans call for the city to build a new fire station to replace the aging Brown Square facility. The new station will serve as the department's headquarters and include state-of-the-art training facilities, Moore said.

He said the new station will "definitely" contain "an appropriate memorial" to the six firefighters, but the design has not been finalized.

Moore said the city's negotiations with Kwan to purchase the Franklin Street parcel had not been linked in any way with the widows' lawsuit.

"The lawsuit was never a factor in our negotiations with Mr. Kwan which occurred some number of months ago," he said.

Kwan said it is appropriate for the city to build a new station on the Franklin Street lot to memorialize the firefighters who lost their lives.

"It's fitting for that sacred land to continue to carry the spirits of those heroes," he said.

After the fire, Kwan turned down at least two proposals, considerably larger than Worcester's final offer, for the site.

The EMC Brokerage Corp. of Framingham offered Kwan $1.7 million for the site in April 2002 and Ka Fai Management of Alston offered $1.5 million in December 2002.

A native of Hong Kong, Kwan came to the United States in 1973 to study at Harvard University where he earned separate master's degrees in architecture and urban planning.

The 56-year-old Framingham resident is one of the region's most prolific developers. He built the MetroWest Wellness Center on Rte. 9 in Framingham and remodeled the Old Northborough Town Hall, among many other projects.

In the past, Kwan has said legal costs for the civil suit exceeded $100,000. He declined to say whether the threatened suit had delayed any projects or resulted in additional costs.

"Now is the time for healing," he said.