In the last 12 years I have covered the funeral of six Worcester Firefighters. Five of the six died at the Cold Storage Warehouse fire on December 6, 1999 and the sixth one was last week, just two days after the 12th anniversary of that awful fatal fire. Six firefighters died in the Cold Storage fire in 1999 and I would have covered all of them except one of the funerals was on Saturday. I was the pool for most or all of them due to my connections with the Boston Fire Department who helped set up their services in 1999. For this funeral they assisted and brought their ramp for placing the casket on top of a piece of apparatus and for the attendants to carry it into the church and the gravesite.
I am always reminded from a speech Boston Firefighters Local 718 President Neal Santangelo gave many years ago as he addressed the new firefighters at their swearing in. He said, “We will help you to be safe and in the end we will bury you.” I thought that day how scary for the new Jakes, who have not even been to a real fire and were already receiving notice of the reality of the job.
This funeral was no different than the many I have covered through the years, not just in Worcester but many of the cities and towns around our coverage area. Many memories of firefighter funerals stick out in my mind. In 1972, when the Vendome Hotel Collapsed killing 8 Boston Firefighters, I can remember covering the funeral with all the caskets lined up at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston’s South End. In Clinton, the wife of a firefighter killed in the line of duty, wearing her somber black dress, coming down the steps of the Church on that freezing cold day with her husband’s charred helmet in her hands. In Stoughton, the same thing, another helmet being clutched tightly in the hands of a firefighter.
Coming back to last week in Worcester, I watched the helmet of fallen firefighter Jon Davies being carried by his partner on the Rescue, Brain Carroll, who was also caught in the collapse. He escaped serious injury after being pulled from the rubble after being trapped for at least 45 minutes. He spent less than 48 hours in the hospital. How pained he must have been as he followed the fire truck with the casket of Davies being brought to his final resting place. He might have been wondering why Jon and not me and his eulogy certainly expressed the emotions he was going through.
The day of the incident reporter Kelly Tuthill and I set up at the Worcester Firefighter’s Memorial to watch and talk to people coming to pay their respects. We got a terrific interview from a high school friend of Davies who was in the area when he found out and stopped to say a prayer. The saddest one I saw was a woman who just hugged the memorial statue while crying. I had assumed it was someone from the families of the 1999 fire and her emotions had been stirred by the new death. I watched her for a few minutes not bringing my camera over, as I knew I could not tape the scene without putting the light on and upsetting her. I did go up and ask if I could help her and was told no thank you. Turns out she was the fiancée of the victim.
The wake itself was routine as the media set up across the street from the funeral home, shooting whatever was going on as folks walked into to give their condolences or maybe to say a prayer. Then the mood changed, at least for me. Deputy Chief Frank Diliddo came over right before our five o’clock live shot to tell us about an eleven-year-old boy, Jared Flanders who rode his bike to the wake to pay his respects. He was seen sitting in the third row and people were wondering who he was. He had come on his own, learned to put his tie on by reading instructions from a book, and said he wanted to be there because he really liked firefighters.
We interviewed the boy and strangely enough when reporters asked him if he wanted to be a firefighter he said it was third on his list, picking a lawyer first. He came to be the Worcester Fire Department’s goodwill person and the department treated him as well as would be expected. The police drove him home that night and next day he was a guest of the fire department, arriving in the scuba team truck to attend the services. The boy then got to march with the bagpipes band in the front row as the firefighters left the Church. There was saluting as the boy marched the route with them. It was a very uplifting moment in an otherwise very sad story.
My assignment was to cover the procession for Jack’s Harper’s pieces later in the show, as he was live during the church service. As usual, he did a great job during the live show, as I went up and down the streets trying to get video for him and stills for our website. I did very well; taking some good stills and getting some of the video, which was needed. Jack had a smorgasbord of video as our coverage was everywhere and he did a great job summarizing the service in his later pieces that day.
Jack alerted me the firefighter carrying the helmet was Firefighter Brian Carroll. I spent the next 20 minutes following the engine company with the casket on it looking for a clear shot of Carroll. I spotted the young boy marching, and then the apparatus and then Firefighter Carroll came into view holding the helmet.
At the end of firefighter services, a fire department member rings a very shiny bell. They ring 1-1, 1-1, then again 1-1, 1-1, the “all-out” signal to an alarm of fire. Sadly, on this day the “all-out” call was not to signify the end of a fire, but instead was a somber reminder that for Firefighter Jon Davies, the final “all-out” has been sounded.
Additional Information on the Worcester Six from December 6, 1999 from Robert Winston, Boston Fire District Chief, retired. A friend of mine from his BFD days.
Camaraderie Under Fire: A Remembrance of the Worcester Tragedy
It was December 3, 1999 when an abandoned cavernous warehouse was set afire by two homeless people who “lived” in the hulking structure. This was the Worcester Cold and Storage Warehouse that was located in the City of Worcester, Massachusetts. The scene of this fire was to become one of fiery collapse, death, heartache, heroism, and camaraderie under the most extreme firefighting conditions.
The homeless man made sexual advances to his girl friend and she had rebuffed his suggestions. He became angry and the two were arguing and throwing things. They were using candles for light and one of the lighted candles was knocked into a pile of debris that quickly ignited. The fire spread as the two squatters fled into the cold night air leaving the fire to grow into what would become one of the worst Line Of Duty (fire service) Deaths (LODD) in the history of the Worcester Fire Department.
Firefighters in many fire engines responded to the growing fire. More aid was called to the scene as it became obvious to the chief in charge that this was no routine fire-fight. Heavy smoke turned to visible flames as the fire ate through the nearly windowless ark of a structure. Inside were many firefighters straining to extinguish the flames. The interior was a maze of darkened rooms and corridors. Six floors of them! Debris was scattered everywhere adding to the difficulties of searching blindly to find the seat of the fire and being able to exit the building in a hurry if needed.
A number of Firefighters became disoriented in the smoke, heat and darkness. They radioed for help. Brother firefighters entered the burning building to try and rescue their now trapped comrades. Time after time these rugged firefighting veterans made dangerous and heroic attempts to find their colleagues. It was no use.
The fire had been eating away at the strength of the brick and wood edifice. It started to collapse. The fire chief in command ordered all firefighters to stop rescue attempts and to vacate the fire building. Six Worcester Firefighters would perish this night despite the Herculean efforts of a small army of firefighters. Recovery of their bodies would last for an arduous somber eight days and nights.
The call went out across the New England region for assistance to respond to Worcester. Many emergency and non-emergency personnel turned out to help. They came by the hundreds to stand with and work with their brother and sister firefighters until the difficult and honorable task of recovery was completed.
The City of Boston Fire Department immediately sent personnel and equipment to the tragic scene. I was one of the many that were sent. My role was one of the safety operational sector chiefs. Those of us that were assigned that task would check for safety issues, look for hazards and prevent any further injuries or deaths. Prior to our arrival at the warehouse fire tragedy, we were given a briefing that included specific instructions and alerted us that the Worcester Firefighters were under severe emotional stress. We were told that tempers may be short and to use tact and to be sensitive to the raw emotions being experienced by the Worcester Firefighters.
It was the second night of the eight nights of recovery operations. The warehouse roof, floors and two exterior walls had fallen and were now huge piles of smoldering debris. The danger of additional structural collapse and of firefighters falling through burned out floors haunted us. The safety officers were kept busy and were vigilant. Injury or worse was at every step.
As I was surveying a section of the building I noticed that a Worcester Fire Lieutenant was standing in a very dangerous location. Debris was loosely dangling above him. I approached the man to warn him of the situation. He was a tall lean guy. Much taller than I. His face was black with soot and his eyes were red and swollen. He looked very tired and tense. I tried to warn him, as delicately as I could, that he was in a dangerous spot. What we were cautioned about prior to our arrival at this fire was about to happen. The Lieutenant became angry with me and got in my face. He didn’t care what rank I was or that I was looking out for his safety. Angry emotion packed words were hurled at me. I tried to reason with him to no avail. A Worcester Chief Officer was standing nearby and saw and heard what was happening. He immediately positioned himself between the lieutenant and myself and defused what could have become an ugly situation. I explained the reason why I had tried to talk to his lieutenant and then I pointed upwards to the hanging debris. The chief understood, apologized to me and assured me that he’d talk to his lieutenant. We both knew and understood how tempers can flare under the unprecedented stressful circumstances that we were all caught up in.
Eight days had passed since the fire began. I had returned to the scene and was again assigned as a safety operational sector chief. The pile of smoldering debris that was once this old warehouse had been reduced in size and fully extinguished. Five of Worcester’s Bravest had been recovered. One was still buried somewhere in the remaining mounds of twisted steel, burned wood and bricks. As I surveyed the scene I noticed the lieutenant that I had the earlier encounter with. He was searching some rubble. I inquired about him and was told that he had been at the scene from the fire’s start and had refused to go home for eight days and nights.
The cold day turned into a very cold and windy December night as recovery operations continued for the last firefighter. Firefighter Paul Brotherton’s body was located under one of the many mounds of bricks and charred wood. His precise and somber removal from the debris will be a picture in my mind’s eye that I will never forget.
It was so cold and dark and quiet as Firefighter Brotherton’s body was taken away in an ambulance. The sad task of recovery was finally over that night. The healing could begin.
There was a large crowd of people standing quietly beyond the yellow safety tape that surrounded the ruins. Hundreds of firefighters formed two parallel lines leading from the destroyed building out to the crowd of onlookers. The Worcester Firefighters climbed down from the piles of debris and slowly walked between the two rows of firefighters who had come from other fire departments. As the Worcester Firefighters passed by us we saluted them, applauded them, shook their hands and some gave hugs. One by one they filed through the rows. A walk of honor and consolation.
I barely recognized the lieutenant whom I encountered days before. It was his height that caused me to look harder at him than at his brothers. His face was now gaunt, blackened and the eyes were red and sunken. We looked at each other. He recognized me and stopped walking. It was more like a slow shuffle. I shook his hand first. Then the lieutenant literally collapsed into my arms. We embraced each other as only firefighters can do at a time like this and he began to sob. Even through our heavy wet protective firefighter’s gear he felt frail and unsteady. Tears stained our faces as we looked at each other. Unbelievably this exhausted weary fire lieutenant apologized to me. I was sort of…stunned. I told him that it was okay, gave him my condolences for his losses and hugged the man again. I watched him as he walked away shoulder to shoulder with his comrades.
I never saw the man again. I have thought of him from time to time when the memory of the Worcester Tragedy comes back to me or when I see the word “camaraderie.”
Robert M. Winston
Boston District Fire Chief-Retired