Dennis Smith, Firehouse® Magazine’s founding editor, reflects on the sacrifices made by the world’s bravest.All six firefighters have now been dug out of the tragic building collapse in Worcester, MA, and, amid the trumpets of tribute from firefighters all over the world, they have been buried...
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Dennis Smith, Firehouse® Magazine’s founding editor, reflects on the sacrifices made by the world’s bravest.All six firefighters have now been dug out of the tragic building collapse in Worcester, MA, and, amid the trumpets of tribute from firefighters all over the world, they have been buried. Lyons, Jackson and McGuirk, Brotherton, Spencer and Lucey – their names have been inscribed in the annals of heroism, and will live forever in the large history of firefighters who have given more than anyone had a right to ask them to give.
I have always thought that being a firefighter is a special sort of blessing. In the thousands of alarms I have responded to and the many hundreds of fires I have fought, I have believed that because I was one of a particular group of people who did something so dramatic, so exciting and so necessary, no other endeavor in life could have given me such happiness and satisfaction. Where would the world be if there were no firefighters, I would ask myself, for no one knows like those who battle on the periphery of the flames just how fast and deadly a fire can be. But, it is like asking where would we be without the police force or the military or even the government, for the world needs brave people to protect us if the human family is to survive.
It is for good reason, though, that firefighters sense that firefighting is the most crucial job of all. A fire can double in size every 60 seconds, and, if it is not challenged and fought by trained men and women, it can travel house by house without end. And, because the best way to fight a fire is the age-old way of getting close to it and cooling it with water, it is a dangerous job.
How dangerous? About 100 firefighters die in the line of duty, many of them needlessly, each year. Since I began firefighting in 1963, more than 3,500 firefighters have been killed in the line of duty. Many of these losses occur in multiple-death incidents. I helped search for 12 firefighters who died in a floor collapse on 23rd Street in New York in 1966, and I helped too in 1978 at the Waldbaum’s fire in Brooklyn where six were lost. In 1972, in Boston, nine firefighters were killed in the Vendome Building fire. I traveled to Massachusetts for the funerals. I also attended the funerals of six firefighters who were killed in a bowling alley fire in Cliffside Park, NJ, in 1967. I remember being at the funeral for the five who ran out of air in a car dealership fire in Hackensack, NJ, in 1988. Twenty-one firefighters died in 1910 at the Chicago stockyards fire, and, as recently as 1994, 14 were killed by a racing firestorm on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. And now this.
The Worcester fire was very much out of control when the firefighters arrived. Two firefighters from Worcester’s Rescue Company 1, Lucey and Brotherton, made an initial search and became lost in the mammoth emptiness of the abandoned building. They called “Mayday” over their radios, and in desperate voices pleaded for help.
A crew of firefighters was sent in, evenly distributed throughout the floors of the warehouse, to search for the two men. The fire service is well trained in this procedure of rapid intervention. Soon, Firefighters Spencer and Jackson of Ladder Company 2 were lost as well, unresponsive to the operational roll call of firefighters in the building. The chief continued the search, now as critical as it was despairing, until he found they were also unable to locate firefighters Lyons and McGuirk of Engine Company 3.
In the meantime, the fire conditions were continuing to worsen, and the flames began to blow through the roof. The conditions for the building collapse were clear, and the chief in charge had no choice but to order his firefighters to evacuate the building.
President Clinton went to the memorial service along with thousands of men and women who fight fires in various parts of the world. “It was the most beautiful, awesome service I have ever seen,” one firefighter said to me, “and I hope I never see another one.”