Firefighter James Rice
Photo credit: Peabody Fire Department
A veteran Peabody firefighter died Friday while battling a three-alarm fire that left as many as 13 people homeless two days before Christmas.
James Rice, 46, was between the second and third floors of a three-story apartment building at 5 Hancock St. when he went down after taking in "toxic fumes," fire Chief Steve Pasdon said. Firefighters and paramedics worked on Rice at the scene, and he was immediately transported to Salem Hospital.
Pasdon did not specify the cause of death other than to call it a "medical condition."
Rice, an 11-year veteran of the department, leaves a wife and three young children.
"As fire chief, I have 100 firefighters that work under me and with me," Pasdon said. "And I can say that firefighter James Rice was liked and loved by everybody. He was a very popular firefighter and was very popular throughout the community. He'll be missed by all of us in the Fire Department and by the entire city of Peabody."
The cause of the fire is under investigation. Hector Galarza, who lives on the second floor with his mother, said the fire started due to an electrical problem in the second-floor bedroom.
Galarza, 15, said the power had gone out in the building and his mother, Annelly Guerrieo, was trying to "fix something" when the bed caught on fire.
"I grabbed my dog and ran," he said.
Hope Rivera, Guerrieo's sister-in-law, said Guerrieo was trying to turn the power back on by flipping a fuse.
"The fuse blew. That's when the fire started," Rivera said.
All of the residents got out of the building safely. Guerrieo was taken to Salem Hospital but was not seriously injured, Rivera said.
"She was shaken up," Rivera said.
Lisa Jaber said she lost all of her possessions in the fire, including Christmas presents for her 8-year-old daughter, Jayla. Neither Jaber, who is nine months pregnant, nor her daughter were home at the time of the fire.
"I have a baby due in two weeks and we have no home, no clothes, no presents," Jaber said. "We have no Christmas."
The fire broke out just after 2 p.m. on Hancock Street, a one-way street off Washington Street. Firefighters from Peabody, Salem, Danvers and Lynnfield responded. Crews cut a hole in the roof and broke windows to vent the building, which was consumed by heavy smoke.
Pasdon said it took 90 minutes to get the fire under control.
An emotional Pasdon announced Rice's death at a press conference at the West Peabody fire station. The press conference was attended by State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan; Edward A. Kelly, president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts union; Mayor Mike Bonfanti and Mayor-elect Ted Bettencourt.
"With a very heavy heart, we ask people to pray for our brother who made the ultimate sacrifice two days before Christmas," Kelly said.
Rice joined the Peabody Fire Department in 2001 after graduating from the state Firefighting Academy in Stow. He and two others were the first Peabody firefighters ever to attend the academy.
In an interview at the time, Rice told The Salem News he had worked in banking for nine years but decided he didn't like white-collar life and took the firefighter's exam.
In 2003, Rice joined pipe and drum corps formed by Peabody firefighters to march in parades and at funerals. The unit was created when Peabody firefighter Kevin Lynch died of a heart attack and an out-of-town pipe-and-drum corps played at his funeral.
In an interview in 2003, Rice said he enjoyed learning to play the drums.
"I haven't played an instrument since I was a kid," he said. "I thought it would be fun to join a band."
Coan said Rice's death is another tragedy so quickly on the heels of the death of Worcester firefighter John Davies, who died Dec. 8 after entering a burning building to search for a victim.
"I never thought I'd be standing here today so soon after the tragedy that killed firefighter Davies," Coan said at the West Peabody fire station.
Coan said the fire is being investigated by state troopers assigned to his office; by agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and by Peabody fire investigators. Coan said investigators will look at any "financial issues" and "code issues" associated with the building.
The building at 5 Hancock St. is owned by Kenneth Louf of Peabody, according to assessor records. Louf purchased the building for $500,000 in 2005. Its current assessed value is $360,000.
Louf could not be reached for comment.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.