Last week marked the 14-year anniversary of one of the most devastating fires to the fire service in recent memory. Worcester, MA Fire Department received a report of smoke in the area of 266 Franklin St. shortly after 6 p.m. on Dec. 4, 1999, and less than 20 hours after the sight of smoke, an entire nation would mourn the loss of six of America’s finest men.
At 6:13 p.m. on Dec. 3, the Worcester F.D. crews were dispatched to the Worcester Cold Storage & Warehouse Company building on Franklin Street. Upon arrival light smoke was found within the entire lower level of the building, and the incident commander requested a second alarm due to the building’s size—a six-story, 70,000-plus, square-foot building originally constructed in 1906 that had been vacant of any business for at least 10 years.
During an initial search, crews found a large fire on the second floor office. Crews immediately began a rigorous interior attack of the fire, attempting to prevent its spread.
During this time, approximately 11 minutes after the initial dispatch, police received reports from store owners across the street from the engulfed building that two homeless people had been residing in the abandoned structure, and may be inside the building. Incident Command instructed two members of the W.F.D. Rescue 1, Lt. Jeremiah Lucey and FF Paul Brotherton, to do a sweeping search of the building’s four upper floors in an attempt to locate the possible trapped men.
As the men initiated the search, it was found that the fire continued to intensify, partially due to the construction of the building. Thick brick walls and no windows or exterior openings above the second floor made it difficult for firefighters to ventilate the building, allowing the walls to act as a chimney in containing the heat and flames. Incident Command subsequently requested a third alarm to be struck, bringing even more fire personnel and apparatus to the scene.
At 6:46p.m., every department’s worst fears became true—Rescue 1’s two-man search team notified dispatch to sound the emergency radio tones to clear the airways, and informed command that they were lost on the building’s fifth floor and running low on air. IC immediately sent two search teams to locate the missing firefighters, consisting of members from Ladder 2 and Engine 3: Lt. Thomas Spencer (L2), FF James Lyons (E3), FF Timothy Jackson (L2), and FF Joseph McGuirk (E3).
As the search crews made their way towards the fifth floor to locate the missing men, the incident commander continued to maintain contact with the missing crew for approximately ten minutes until the missing firefighters made their last known transmission to acknowledge an order advising the crew to activate their PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) device.
Nine minutes later, Engine 3 contacted Ladder 2 and asked for their location. “Good question,” is the response from the other crew – they too had become lost on the fifth floor while searching for the first set of missing firefighters. Ladder 2 made contact with incident command and notified them that they have also become lost, and requested that crews enter the stairwell and yell so that they can locate it.
But just 11 minutes after notifying IC that they have also become lost, a frantic voice from Ladder 2 was heard on the radio with one of the most haunting radio transmissions ever heard: “Ladder 2 to Command… We’re done.” This was the last transmission from any of the six missing firefighters.
A fifth alarm was requested, and more crews were sent into the building to locate the missing men. But with conditions rapidly deteriorating, at 7:58 p.m. incident command ordered all firefighters to evacuate the building immediately.
After 20 hours of exterior firefighting and over six million gallons of water, the fire was finally brought under control, and crews began the heartbreaking search for their fallen brothers. After extensive searches were conducted, the bodies of all six firefighters were found in various locations on the building’s fifth floor, all considerable distances from the floor’s only exit.
After the conclusion of the fire, it was learned that the two homeless residents believed to be within the building, Thomas Levesque and Julie Ann Barnes, got into an argument earlier in the afternoon and had knocked over a candle while arguing, then both fled the building when the fire from the candle grew out of control.
The tragedy captured national attention, and the memorial service for the six firefighters drew over 30,000 firefighters from across the country as well as millions of viewers who watched the events on TV. In addition, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore attended, marking one of the few times the two appeared together outside of the nation’s capital during their eight years in office.
The two homeless citizens were criminally charged with the fire, but received only probation for their roles in the firefighters’ deaths. Over the days that followed the disaster, many questioned why such a move was made to search for the unconfirmed report of homeless inside a building where they shouldn’t have been. Several tried to answer the constant barrage of questions, but it seemed that no words could soothe the confusion and pain of the public’s heart.
But the question was put to rest at the memorial service, when Worcester Chief of Department Dennis Budd addressed the eventually fatal move with one of the most telling quotes ever uttered of the fire service: “While others may question why these men took such a risk, this is what we’ve come to expect from our brave firefighters. To our firefighters, every life is valued and treasured the same – and these six men have taught us all to expect no less.”
Knoll, 21, of Eldora, can be contacted by email at email@example.com. He is a student at Rowan University.