Rachel V. Katz reports on a special tribute by members of 23 fire departments.By Dec. 18, 1999, the last Worcester funeral was over and clean-up crews had all but abandoned the blackened shell of the Worcester warehouse. But a group of firefighters from Connecti-cut’s Naugatuck Valley felt there was one more thing left to be done.
A week earlier, they gathered on Derby’s city green to commemorate the six firefighters. Now, as a final tribute, they would take one of the six memorial candles and bring it, truck by truck, hand to hand, to Worcester. By the time the candle arrived in Worcester, it had passed through the hands of members of 23 fire departments - 18 in Connecticut and five in Massachusetts.
"We discussed the idea and thought it could be a nice thing to extend our bond with the Worcester firefighters," Derby Assistant Fire Chief Gary Parker said. "It was something from our service to their service."
Derby has never lost a firefighter in the line of duty, but its neighbor Shelton lost a man in 1991. "We know what it’s like," said Firefighter Kevin Hazlett of Shelton’s Echo Hose Company. "It brings back memories of what we’ve been through."
Most firefighters in the Valley explained their choice to hold several memorials of their own as part of the brotherhood. But as they talked, it became clear they saw even greater parallels between their towns and Worcester. Although much smaller - Derby has a population of 12,000 - each of the small Naugatuck Valley communities developed as mill towns, thriving on industry. Brick buildings and old factories, some long-since abandoned, dot the skyline, presenting the local fire services with the prospect of having to rush into them unsure of what they might find.
Worcester "is bigger, but if you look at the buildings, it’s just like Derby," Captain Charles Stankye III of Derby’s Paugassett Hook & Ladder Company said.
With solemnity, but little fanfare, Stankye presented the cross-capped candle to Ansonia Firefighter Joseph Mattosovich, who carried it onto an Ansonia engine. Members of volunteer companies from Shelton, Derby and Ansonia accompanied the truck to the Seymour town line for the first hand-over. Of the five candles left on the Derby Green that morning, one will be sent to Windsor Locks, CT, where the state plans to build a memorial to its own fallen firefighters, and the others will be distributed to each of Derby’s four companies.
Soon, the caravan, which included trucks from the four Valley towns, headed onto Route 8, sirens wailing as the procession wound its way along Naugatuck River. At each town line along Routes 8 and 84, the trucks exited and met up with members of the next company, stopping just long enough for the candle to be carried respectfully from one gloved hand to the next.
After passing the candle to a Southington firefighter, Jeff Schiavi of Cheshire said he was glad to have participated. "It’s just to do something out of respect for the families and the lost men," said Schiavi, who was dressed in his turnout gear. Others donned their dress uniforms for the occasion.
Each hand-off was solemn in its own right, with firefighters often passing their own thoughts quietly to the next, but several other events along the way drew particular appreciation. Shortly after the candle was passed to East Farmington, riders in the convoy caught a glimpse of the raised arch of two ladder trucks rising from an overpass on Interstate 84. Accompanying the trucks was a line of firefighters from the University of Connecticut, standing in an aerial salute. In Vernon, local Boy Scouts stood as an honor guard for the transfer, which had attracted a small crowd of onlookers.
At the Massachusetts border, the procession pulled directly onto the highway median, exchanging a Connecticut State Police escort with several motorcycle officers from the Massachusetts State Police. Rescue Truck 1 joined the line in Worcester, and the group continued to Engine Company 3 and Ladder Company 2, where four of the lost men had left for their last alarm.
"It is with sadness and pride that we present candle number one to the Worcester Fire Department on behalf of the Derby firefighters in honor of brothers we have lost," Stankye said, as he passed the candle to District Chief Stuart Howe. Worcester firefighters then planted the candle in the midst of a garden of tributes comprised of flowers, teddy bears, signs and other items left by well-wishers.
"It shows a lot of support, and I believe it helps the hurt that we feel," Howe said. "It’s fellow officers showing a concern for other firefighters for what we have gone through."