The Worcester Fire & Memorial Service: Behind The Scenes

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...

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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On Monday, Dec. 6, we met at the hotel at 9 A.M. Dowling’s file of contacts throughout the state was invaluable. Police escorts, bus transportation, radios, air support – you name it, Dowling had a source. He started with a task list and assignments were given out – this person would work on catering for 10,000 after the Memorial Service, that person on parking for the 15,000 who would march, this person on bagpipe bands. Then, it was back to City Hall to brief the city. The city had all the key decision-makers present, which made things go smoothly. We met with the general manager of the Worcester Centrum, Sandy Dunn. Nothing we requested was met with a no. The Centrum was booked for the next three nights, but Dunn and her staff would make it work.

Burke and Duffy kept in constant contact with their Washington office. What they were hearing was there was strong interest from the White House with the tragedy unfolding in Worcester. In fact, Vice President Al Gore at one point called Mullane for an update. His concern and support was genuine and much appreciated.

On Monday evening, we went up to the Centrum to do a walk through. In a most surreal setting, we toured the Centrum during a sold-out World Wrestling Federation show. The WWF visited the firehouse behind the Centrum and quietly dropped off checks totaling over $20,000 for the firefighters fund.

Day 5

On Tuesday morning, Dec. 7, the dynamics of the Memorial Service changed. Our usual 9 A.M. meeting was interrupted by Burke telling us that the White House had just confirmed that President Clinton would attend.

Operational support turned the fire scene into a small city. Hundreds of volunteers were feeding the firefighters around the clock, cases of socks and gloves arrived, photo IDs were being given out, heated tents with cots were set up, search dogs brought in, cranes working non-stop gently lifting off the floors of the fire building.

The media had decided that they would televise the procession and Memorial Service live. Not one or two stations, but all six Boston TV stations plus Worcester cable. In the end, CNN, MSNBC and Fox joined these stations. I handled most of the Boston media with Burke handling the national press.

At the hotel, we had our first meeting with members of the White House advance team. They stated that their instructions were to work with us and asked us our plans. Duffy went over the program and timetable.

Day 6

By Wednesday, Dec. 8, there was an urgency among the firefighters to recover the remaining four. No one wanted them still missing while the Memorial Service went on.

Whitehead met with the chief, the families, members of the Worcester local, the PFFM and the hundreds of IAFF members working the scene. While there, they received a call from Gore’s staff that he was coming to Worcester for the service.

The logistics were amazing, but doable. Dowling coordinated the use of over 100 buses and 50 police motorcycles, staging areas for thousands of firefighters, the pickup of the families, the State Police buglers for the service, etc. The media attention had made this a major national story.

Once word that both the President and Vice President were coming, the Memorial Service escalated to an event that none of us had ever worked – it is not often that the President and Vice President appear together outside of Washington.

Day 7: The Memorial Service

Dowling and Walsh were outside setting up the procession. We all had figured that we would get 15,000 to 20,000 firefighters in Worcester, but signs were starting to show that we had lowballed our estimate. Amtrak donated special trains from Boston and New York City. Bus after bus was arriving. Nova Scotia, Cleveland, Cape Cod, Vermont – they came from everywhere.

The weather was perfect. Along the procession route, the people of Worcester had taken their mayor’s advice to honor firefighters by viewing the procession. Thousands of spectators lined the streets, at some points six deep. No one will ever forget the schoolchildren. Their homemade signs offering support to all firefighters left an indelible mark.

We had decided that the main focal point of the procession for the media would be in front of the Central Street Firehouse. It was there that we set up the two Worcester ladder trucks with a 15-by-25-foot American flag. We originally figured six TV camera positions at this location; we ended up with 20.

The seating diagram had been worked out between Duffy and the White House. We had 14,000 seats to fill. We also had Worcester firefighters’ families, elected officials, union officials, clergy and the immediate families of the six firefighters inside the Centrum. It broke down as follows: 800 members of the families of the six firefighters; 2,600 members of the Worcester firefighters’ families; 100 members of the clergy; 500 elected officials, union officials and assorted dignitaries; and 10,000 firefighters.