Steve MacDonald provides day-by-day coverage of the unfolding Worcester tragedy, as firefighters came to the aid of comrades and their families.The Dec. 3, 1999, retirement party for Needham, MA, Firefighter Tom Welch had been going well. The room at Florian Hall in Boston, home to Boston...
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Steve MacDonald provides day-by-day coverage of the unfolding Worcester tragedy, as firefighters came to the aid of comrades and their families.The Dec. 3, 1999, retirement party for Needham, MA, Firefighter Tom Welch had been going well. The room at Florian Hall in Boston, home to Boston Firefighters Local 718, was filled with firefighters from across the state. At the same time some 50 miles west of Boston, Box 1438 was being struck for a building fire at 266 Franklin St. in Worcester.
As the evening went on at Florian, many of the firefighters kept looking at their pagers. What they read was not good. The fire in Worcester had gone to five alarms and, more importantly, firefighters were missing. It was 7 P.M.
The president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts (PFFM), Bob McCarthy, sought out International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) 3rd District Vice President Mike Mullane to brief him on the fire. McCarthy represents all Massachusetts union firefighters and Mullane all union firefighters in New England. The missing firefighters were members of one of New England’s strongest IAFF locals, Worcester Local 1009.
Many members of the PFFM’s newly formed Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) Team were also present at Florian. The decision was made to send the team at once to Worcester. It was now 8 P.M.
The retirement party continued with constant updates being phoned in to McCarthy. Then came the call they did not want to come. McCarthy told Mullane they were requested to respond to the fire scene in Worcester at once. Joining them was PFFM Secretary-Treasurer Ken Donnelly. As one of Boston Fire’s public information officers and an Executive Board member of Local 718, I volunteered to drive.
On the trip, Mullane started making phone calls. He contacted the executive assistant to IAFF General President Al Whitehead in Washington, D.C., Harold Schaitberger. It was agreed to get IAFF Health & Safety Director Richard Duffy and IAFF Communications Director George Burke to Worcester as soon as possible.
The team from Boston arrived in Worcester at 10:45 P.M. McCarthy, Mullane and Donnelly were briefed by the PFFM’s CISD Team. Next, they conferred with State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan,Worcester Fire Chief Dennis Budd, PFFM Vice President (7th District) Ron Armstrong and Worcester IAFF Local 1009 President Frank Raffa. It was confirmed that six Worcester firefighters had been missing since 7 P.M.
It was time to meet with the families of the six missing firefighters.
Coordinated efforts between the Worcester Fire and Police departments had the families taken to St. Stephen’s School. There, members of the PFFM’s CISD Team had secured classrooms for each family. The six missing firefighters had a combined 17 children. Five of the men were married. The families silently filed into the school, escorted by Worcester firefighters, chaplains and friends. It was 11 P.M.
Budd, Coan, Armstrong and Raffa together with the union officials from Boston made the short trip to St. Stephen’s School. The family members were assembled into one of the larger classrooms. Clergy, city officials and CISD Team members lined the walls. In the most difficult and emotional meeting I have ever witnessed as a firefighter, Budd told the families that their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers had been missing for several hours and there was little chance for survival. It was midnight.
Over the next few hours, the PFFM’s CISD Team assisted the families and, just as important, the Worcester firefighters. They rose to the occasion and for those who ever doubted the need for CISD, this night they had their answer.