The Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse Fire: Box 5-1438

Harvey Eisner interviews the initial incident commander at the fire that claimed the lives of six firefighters.Editor's note: This article is based on an official interview between Harvey Eisner and the initial incident commander six months after the...


Harvey Eisner interviews the initial incident commander at the fire that claimed the lives of six firefighters. Editor's note: This article is based on an official interview between Harvey Eisner and the initial incident commander six months after the devastating fire. At press time, the incident...


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Harvey Eisner interviews the initial incident commander at the fire that claimed the lives of six firefighters.Editor's note: This article is based on an official interview between Harvey Eisner and the initial incident commander six months after the devastating fire. At press time, the incident remained under investigation. We would like to thank the Worcester Fire Department and Worcester IAFF Local 1009 for their cooperation in allowing us to bring you the basic facts of the incident.

The worst building fire in terms of loss of life to firefighters in nearly 23 years killed six Worcester, MA, firefighters on Dec. 3, 1999. Two firefighters immediately began searching for homeless people known to be living in the vacant cold storage warehouse building.

The firefighters found no one, and as they checked for fire extension they became lost and disoriented. They remained in radio contact as numerous firefighters searched the upper floors of the very large heavy timber constructed building. During the extensive search, and as conditions deteriorated, four other firefighters apparently also became lost. Command was unable to reach them on the radio. A head count confirmed that four firefighters were missing.

After numerous attempts by several companies on various floors, conditions were such that firefighters could not make it on to the upper floors to continue their search for the missing firefighters. The building was evacuated and another head count was taken. A defensive attack was set up. The fire burned for quite some time and eventually the entire interior of the structure collapsed onto the second-floor wooden deck.

Units remained on the scene for eight days, digging through the ruins for the missing firefighters until they were found. Extensive statewide mutual aid from Massachusetts covered Worcester firehouses (see related article on page 60) for two weeks. Two homeless people who had been living in the building, but had escaped before firefighters arrived, were arrested and charged with starting the fire.

First Alarm

At 6:13 P.M. on Dec. 3, 1999, Worcester fire dispatch received a call from the police reporting smoke coming from the cold storage warehouse at 266 Franklin St. Four engines, two ladders and Rescue 1 under the command of District Chief Mike McNamee (Car 3) responded to Box 1438, located at Franklin and Arctic streets. McNamee has served the Worcester Fire Department for 28 years, the last 61/2 as a district chief.

From a block away Engine 1 observed smoke showing from the roof of the warehouse. The building was constructed as a cold storage warehouse around 1905-1910, and it had been vacant since 1987. Apparently, a major ammonia leak occurred in the building many decades ago. In the spring of 1999, a two-alarm fire broke out in an attached portion of the building, but did not extend to the warehouse.

The warehouse was 85 to 90 feet tall, L shaped, measuring 185 feet by 150 feet. The walls were brick, 18 inches thick. The interior had asphalt-impregnated cork insulation. Columns were 10 by 10 inches set in a grid pattern. Smaller rooms had partitions between the columns. The building had no standpipe or siamese connections and it was unknown at the time of the fire whether it had sprinklers. There was a huge billboard on the roof.

Second Alarm

McNamee was making his rounds in the northern part of the city. Car 3 arrived on the scene four to five minutes behind the first-arriving companies. McNamee responded via an elevated portion of Interstate 290 adjacent to the warehouse and had an elevated view of the warehouse roof. He could see a moderate smoke condition at the roof level.

As he was exiting I-290, McNamee called for a second alarm because of the size of the building. The time was 6:16. The responding two engines and one ladder were ordered to stage. Upon his arrival, McNamee noted the first ladders were positioned to the roof. Several loading-dock doors were forced open.

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