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 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.

There were three stairwells in the building. The A stairwell went only to the second floor office area. The B stairwell served all six floors. This was adjacent to two elevator shafts. The C stairwell went only to the third floor in the rear. This was adjacent to an elevator shaft (see diagram). The rescue company was split into teams to search for people and fire extension.

Engine 1 stretched a 13/4-inch hoseline into the building. There was a light haze inside. The fire was located on the second floor in a large room on the B side. The warehouse was separated by a fire wall. To the left of the fire wall was known as the A building. The other side was designated B.

When the second alarm was requested, the on-duty deputy chief responded and took over command. McNamee then became interior command. Fire alarm called and said it had received a report from the police that homeless people were known to be living in the building. Two 21/2-inch handlines were stretched up to the second floor. A 21/2-inch handline was stretched to the base of the rear shaft. Another 21/2-inch handline was stretched up the rear stairway.

Before the handlines were in position at the opening in the fire wall between the A and B sections, firefighters were holding the door shut, keeping the fire back. Conditions were so clear initially that self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) facepieces were not needed. The 12-by-15-foot elevator shaft in the rear was vented.

As companies worked the fire with handlines, McNamee went up to the third floor to check conditions. He entered the third floor and went through three doorways. Conditions were mild. He turned around to come out and didn't like what he saw. There were several doors. He recalled that he wasn't sure which door he had gone through.

"I went through all of them and one looked like the right door, so I waited and listened and I heard some noise coming from the direction of one door," McNamee said. "It turned out the stairway was a door or two past in that direction. I found my way back to the stairway. It was quite confusing on the third floor as to which way I came in. The smoke conditions were still very mild. I made it a point to keep checking up at the ceiling to see if any heat was building and it wasn't.

"I started to go up the stairs between the third and fourth floors.This was 20 to 30 minutes into the fire. Things went bad in three to four seconds. It went from a mild haze to zero visibility. Thick, black, acrid smoke. There was no heat on the lower levels, just smoke. I ordered all personnel down from the upper floors and I wanted a head count. I gave that order very loud verbally in the stairwell and by radio.

"My main concern at that point was that I was going to leave companies operating on the second floor to keep hitting the fire. I wanted to get the people down from the upper floors. I wanted to control the stairwell. I didn't want anybody else going up, so I knew who was operating where and what they were doing. As people were coming down, I was talking to them and they were saying, yes, we are all here.

"One of the reports was from the Rescue 1 lieutenant, who said keep an eye out for Jerry Lucey and Paul Brotherton, two of his firefighters from Rescue 1. I haven't seen them. He went out to see if they were coming out. He came back in a minute or two later and said, I don't know where Jerry and Paul are. We received a report on the radio from the two rescue firefighters. They were disorientated, they couldn't find their way out."

McNamee asked the firefighters what floor they were on. They replied that they were "two floors below the roof." The problem was knowing how many floors were in the windowless building. The only windows in the building were on the second floor in the office area. There were staggered windows at the landings in the stairwell on the exposure B side.

McNamee again asked the firefighters whether they knew which floor they were on. Again, the said they were "two floors below the roof." McNamee took a run outside to look up and see whether he could figure how many floors were in the building. "They were counting from the top down and I was counting from the bottom up," McNamee said.

The third alarm had already been sounded. Two engines and one ladder - Engines 3 and 7 and Ladder 2 - were staged. The crews were ordered into the building as search groups. The second-alarm companies had been put to work earlier. Units inside the building immediately started a search to locate the missing firefighters. The responding units that had been dispatched were ordered to go in for search. Crews were lined up outside the stairwell on the first floor.

"We started to get more radio transmissions," McNamee said. "They were running out of air. We were fighting against time. I had search crews going and rotating through the third, fourth and fifth floors. When I ran outside and I looked at the height of the building, I figured it was 85 to 90 feet in height. I knew they ran forklift trucks in there, so we had tall floors on all floors. I figured it was five to six floors.

"I had people searching the third, fourth and fifth floors. I controlled that search from the stairwell. As a group came down, I'd say what floor did you come from, what were the conditions? They would say we came from the fifth floor. I'd assign another company, tell them fifth floor, stay on the search rope, which was anchored in the stairwell, come out before your low-air alarm goes off. Next group, stay together.

"I left the stairwell a few times. I said nobody else goes up until I get back. From a position in the stairwell between the first and second floors looking upwards towards the second floor visibility was lousy. The stairway was loaded with smoke. I was getting concerned with the conditions on three or four floors above what I could see.

"Companies coming down said it was starting to get hot up there. We kept rotating companies. Some firefighters were in the stairway wailing away on the banister with their tools to make noise to make sure firefighters could home in on it. This was also done early on in the fire as well as firefighters removing their face pieces to yell into the doorway to guide firefighters out when conditions went bad. Companies were also rotated on the second floor to try and get a handle on the fire.

"The stairway on the B side was very narrow like a fire escape stair. Solid treads, no risers. If you had two firefighters in the stairway with tanks on, you had to turn sideways and squeeze past each other. There were three turns to a floor. The doors to each floor opened out into the stairway."

A firefighter from Ladder 2 went outside to change his air tank. He called, "Ladder 200 to Ladder 2," trying to contact his officer, Lieutenant Thomas Spencer. After five attempts, he still didn't get a response. There was anguish in his voice.

"I said we were missing two more," McNamee said. "They were one of the crews I directed to go search upstairs. Lieutenant Thomas Spencer and I locked eyes as he was going up the stairs. I knew Spencer had gone to the fifth floor. I notified the crews that we were missing two members from Ladder 2 and they are on the fifth floor."

Building Held "Secrets"

McNamee continued, "I went outside three times to look to see if the building could tell me anything. The building held all the secrets, you could not read this building. There were no openings to read what was going on. When you looked up Franklin Street, you saw 85 feet of blank brick. The office windows on the A-D side were covered over with plywood. Those were opened later.

"I was in good radio communication with the first two trapped firefighters from Rescue 1. I asked them to activate their integrated SCBA PASS alarms. Some firefighters said that on some of their radio transmissions you could hear their PASS alarms going off. Nobody on the floors could hear the PASS alarms. They radioed that their low-air alarms were going off.

"Then they gave a Mayday. They were running low on air. I had a sick feeling in my stomach that we didn't have a whole lot of time to find these guys. Somebody was looking for them on every floor. A constant search.

"Crews started coming down and I asked them how are conditions upstairs. One of the first bad reports was that a company couldn't make the fifth floor. Then another company couldn't make the fourth floor. A very experienced lieutenant that I respect said, 'Chief we couldn't make the third floor on this try.'

"It was getting too bad up there. There were 12 guys lined up outside the stairwell ready to go and I looked at them and said if I send these guys up there they may not come down. Too much time elapsed."

Firefighters who went out to change tanks reported the that fire was "really going" on the second floor. This was at the same time that the reports from companies above were reporting "lousy" conditions.

"One of the two original firefighters from Rescue 1 reported they were near a window," McNamee said. "There were no windows. I ran outside again; the only windows were by the office area and they had been cleared out or burned through. The only other windows were at the B stairwell.

"I found out later from someone who had been inside the building that there were frameouts in some of the cold storage areas that would make you think you were near a window. The trapped firefighters reported that they were near a window, out of air, on the floor and they were buddy breathing."

Venting Like A Blowtorch

The heat from the fire on the second floor was venting up the shaft like a blowtorch. It was an hour into the search and, McNamee recalled thinking, "time is not with us."

"I said we have to call it," he said. "It was not accepted well. Over the radio I told command from interior command 'Evacuate the building.' I stood in the doorway and wouldn't let anybody else back up. Unless these guys found another way out, they're gone. The dozen firefighters standing in the stairwell were screaming, 'What are you talking about? They're still up there!'

"I said we already lost four, we're not going to lose anymore. Let's go outside and set up defensive operations. Anybody who had been upstairs knew the conditions that were in the building."

The dispatcher made an announcement over the radio and air horns sounded on the apparatus outside. Most of the interior hoselines were abandoned. Another head count was made after the evacuation.

"At that point, we realized we were missing two more firefighters from Engine 3 who had hooked up with Ladder 2," McNamee said.

One more attempt was made a few minutes later to try the stairwell, but to no avail. "Leaving the building, all you could see was a little smoke coming from a few places," McNamee said. "When you walked back to the lot across the street, you could see the Roman-candle effect shooting from the vent."

Numerous tower ladders were requested to the scene from neighboring departments. Several were positioned on I-290 adjacent to side D of the fire building. Apparatus were pulled back, flanked at the corners and the ladders were positioned across the street and they set up their ladder pipes. The fire went to five alarms, bringing 18 of Worcester's 23 units to the scene. After the fourth alarm, a shift of 106-110 firefighters was recalled. These firefighters man spare apparatus or beef up remaining in-service companies. The entire department was recalled after the fifth alarm.

The following morning, a crane was brought in to assist in the recovery operations. The sixth, fifth, fourth and third floors burned and collapsed onto the deck of the second floor. Miles of refrigeration piping snaked back and forth in the rubble. Power saws and cutting torches were needed to cut the pipes.

Three to six feet of ash and charcoal remained. The crane took down a portion of the B side. Surface searches were conducted. The crane removed large debris and then the surface was searched again. To remove the small debris took old fashioned "bull work." Dirty, filthy work, bucket-brigade style. Two Bobcats were also used on the deck. Eventually, three cranes were used. Specialized units responded to assist in any possible way. Search dogs were used.

The Boston Fire Department sent its rescue and collapse units to the scene. When a large void was discovered, fiber optic cameras were used. Chiefs from Boston were used as safety chiefs monitoring the work in the collapse area. Engineers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used transits to monitor any movement in the walls. Firefighters from departments across the region arrived at the site to volunteer their services at the fire scene. They were used to search the rubble and assist with removing debris. During the eight-day search, the early December weather blessed rescuers with mostly mild conditions. One night it rained and there were a couple of windy days.

Across the street from the warehouse a tent city was erected. There was an operations command post for the Worcester Fire Department. The Massachusetts state fire marshal set up a command post. There was an area for the families, food, rest and recuperation, state hazardous materials teams, staging and critical incident stress debriefing. Numerous departments covered empty Worcester fire stations. Out-of-city units operated at a two-alarm fire during the recovery period. The last firefighter was recovered nearly a week after the fire began.

A memorial service for the fallen firefighters brought nearly 35,000 firefighters from around the world in the largest gathering of firefighters in the 350-year history of the U.S. Fire Service. Six separate funerals were conducted. Out-of-town mutual aid companies from across the state remained on duty for nearly two weeks. The criminal and fire investigations and internal departmental review continue.


Lieutenant Thomas E. Spencer, Ladder 2
Firefighter Paul Brotherton, Rescue 1
Firefighter Timothy Jackson, Ladder 2
Firefighter Jeremiah M. Lucey, Rescue 1
Firefighter James F. Lyons, Engine 3
Firefighter Joseph T. McGuirk, Engine 3