On the evening of Dec. 3, 1999, firefighters from the Worcester (Mass.) Fire Department (WFD) began an interior search of the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. at 266 Franklin St. after responding to the report of a fire within the massive structure with possible victims trapped. Six of those firefighters never made it back out.
Today we recall the tragic fire and those who gave their lives 11 years ago:• Firefighter Paul Brotherton, Rescue 1
• Firefighter Jeremiah Lucey, Rescue 1
• Lieutenant Thomas Spencer, Ladder 2
• Firefighter Timothy Jackson, Ladder 2
• Firefighter James Lyons, Engine 3
• Firefighter Joseph McGuirk, Engine 3
Constructed in 1906, the warehouse, which had been vacant for nearly a decade prior to the fire, stood six stories tall and had virtually no windows above the second floor. The exterior brick walls were reported to be 18 inches thick. The interior walls were covered with layer upon layer of insulating materials—12 inches of asphalt-impregnated cork, polystyrene foam and polyurethane—creating an extremely dangerous situation for firefighters entering the structure.
The first two alarms were sounded within 4 minutes of each other, bringing a total of 42 firefighters, 10 apparatus and two chief officers to the scene. First-arriving companies reported heavy smoke from the roof area. Upon entering the structure, firefighters performed an aggressive interior attack on a fire they discovered on the second floor. Crews also ventilated the building via the roof. The Search
Eleven minutes after arriving on scene, personnel were informed by a neighbor that two people had been living in the warehouse. It was later discovered that Thomas S. Levesque and Julie Ann Barnes, both homeless, had indeed been inside the warehouse earlier that day. According to reports, they argued earlier that afternoon, knocking over a candle inside the structure, and fled without reporting the fire to emergency services.
Upon receiving word of possible civilians inside the building, WFD Rescue 1 started an extensive building search, but several minutes later, two members from that company became disoriented somewhere on the top floors of the building. Running low on air and with near-zero visibility, they called for help. They also activated their PASS alarms, which were never heard by other crews in the building. It was later discovered that both of these firefighters were more than 150 feet from the floor’s only available exit.
Given the overwhelming amount of flammable material inside the structure, firefighters were unable to control the fire and interior conditions deteriorated rapidly. In addition to the rescue crew, two more crews became disoriented on the upper floors in a desperate search for their brother firefighters. When the evacuation order was given 1 hour and 45 minutes into the event, five firefighters and one officer were missing. It took 8 days to find and recover the remains of the six men.
According to NFPA records, the Worcester Cold Storage Fire is the first loss of six firefighters in a structure fire where neither exterior building collapse nor an explosion was a contributing factor to the fatalities.
“The principle factors leading to this tragedy,” says WFD Deputy Chief John Sullivan, “were the lack of knowledge concerning the unusual construction features of this building, and utilizing the same air-management principles on a commercial structure fire as are used in residential firefighting.”The Aftermath
The enormity of this incident gained national attention. President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator John Kerry all attended the funeral services, which were broadcast on several national news networks.
Both Levesque and Barnes were charged with six counts of manslaughter. The charges had to be withdrawn by the prosecution for lack of a statutory precedence. The laws in Massachusetts were later amended to make it a criminal offense to start a fire, even accidentally, and not report it to authorities. The building’s owner was not criminally charged, but settled a civil case years after.
Today, the land once occupied by the warehouse is home to the new Franklin Street Fire Station, and serves as a fitting memorial to the events of that fateful night and to the memory of the fallen brothers.
Actor/comedian Denis Leary, who lost both his first cousin Jerry Lucey and his childhood friend Tommy Spencer in that fire, subsequently founded the Leary Firefighters Foundation in 2000 to help support fire departments with equipment and training needs.
Looking back on the tragic incident, Chief Sullivan notes, “The entire American fire service has been greatly affected by this historic fire. Our hope continues to be that no other department need suffer the same kind of losses for lack of knowledge. We know that several incident commanders have made informed decisions on similar fires since 1999, and those fires have not suffered any loss of life as a result.”
1. The U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series. “Abandoned Cold Storage Warehouse Multi-Firefighter Fatality Fire.” USFA-TR-134, Dec. 1999.
2. Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.com.