Retired Worcester Fire Lt. Donald Courtney sat down in a chair and began to rub his hands. The soot from an old fire ax was stubborn and didn’t want to come off.
The soot carries with it a memory, one that no Worcester firefighter can forget.
“When you know the story behind it, it becomes a lot more emotional,” Courtney said. “Knowing where it came from, that’s the hard part.”
When six Worcester firefighters died in the Worcester Cold Storage Fire and Warehouse Co. fire nearly 20 years ago, people began to place items along the fence protecting the scene and at firehouses across the city.
Behind Courtney were stacks of gray 22-gallon boxes inside the basement of the Saint-Gobain Corp. visitors center in Worcester.
Every box carried a memory with some containing messages of hope, sympathy and encouragement sent during a rare time when the Worcester firefighters needed the citizens to help carry them.
People wanted to remember the six souls lost in the fire: Lts. Thomas Spencer, 42, Timothy P. Jackson Sr., 51, and James F. Lyons III, 34, and Firefighters Jeremiah M. Lucey, 38, Paul A. Brotherton, 41, and Joseph T. McGuirk, 38.
People wanted to be there for the firefighters left behind.
In the darkest of times, those messages helped Worcester firefighters realize they were not alone.
“It showed the citizens of Worcester were with us and supported us,” Courtney said.
“We would walk down the street and someone would say, ‘Thank you for everything you do.’ It was something that would get at your heart.”
Those 80 boxes contain what is known as “the stuff.”
The soot on Courtney’s hands came after opening a box that contained a nozzle, hook and an ax. The retired firefighter and former union representative’s mind began to race, thinking about who may have touched that equipment last.
“When I open up a box, I know what that piece of equipment did. I know where it was found,” said Courtney, the keeper of the boxes. “Could have it been in one of the six guy’s hands, that’s all you think about it.”
In the aftermath of the fire at Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co., firefighters began to dig through the ash and destruction. They were searching for the bodies of their fellow firefighters lost in the inferno.
While sifting through the rubble, some using small paintbrushes to carefully brush away dust, the firefighters at the scene nearly 20 years ago worked tirelessly to find their brothers.
They knew their task. They knew their goal. Firefighters, after all, just don’t quit.
Now Worcester Fire Chief Michael Lavoie’s work within the collection shows the emotion of that search. The pictures all of six lost souls surrounded a pair of gloves encased in glass. The gloves are sifting through the brick and dust.
A temporary Worcester 6 exhibit will be at Union Station and include all of the artifacts for people to see.
The Worcester Historical Fire Society Inc. decided to create the tribute in a pop-up museum. The exhibit will tell the chronological story of the fire.
Free and open to the public, the exhibit will include videos, pictures, a scale model of the building and items left at the scene of the fire.
People began gathering at the scene within hours after the fire broke out and word spread that six firefighters were lost. Stuffed animals, flowers and posters began to line the fence around the scene. An engine truck nearby became a collection site for people to express their grief and sympathy for the Worcester Fire Department.
Those messages of hope, faith and love of firefighters continued to arrive at firehouses across the city and at City Hall. The items were sent from across the globe.
As Courtney began to collect the items to prepare for the 20, he pulled down bins. Cards filled some of the boxes while others contained stuff animals.
A portion of a fence covered with shirts, fire department patches and other items sits in the basement.
“We kept it because we knew the importance,” Courtney said. “We knew there would be a day like the one coming up. We treat this with such respect, we never want it to be lost.”
The items will soon be moved to Union Station for people to see, touch and remember before Dec. 3, 2019, the 20th anniversary of the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire.
“We can just put our hands in a box and pull out a bunch of notes,” Courtney said. “We had a map and we would open a bin and post pins with the return addresses. Before we got through the first bin, we had letters from all 50 states, two territories, two foreign countries and two ships at sea.”
The exhibit will be open on the following days and times:
Nov. 30 from 12 to 6 p.m.
Dec. 1 from 12 to 6 p.m.
Dec. 2 from 4 to 8 p.m.
Dec. 3 from 12 to 5 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m.
Dec. 4 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
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