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December 3, 2009 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Box 5-1438: Report of a structure fire at 266 Franklin St. 10 years ago this evening in Worcester, MA, the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Fire started when two people living in the abandoned building, Julie Barnes and Thomas Levesque, knocked over a candle during an argument and then fled. Upon arrival at the quickly growing fire, reports were received about two people living in the building, and firefighters entered the building to rescue them. During the primary search, Rescue 1 firefighters Paul Brotherton and Jeremiah Lucey were the first to report trouble. They were lost on the 4th floor and running out of air. Soon after, a four man rescue crew of Lt. Thomas Spencer (Ladder 2), firefighter Timothy Jackson (Ladder 2), Lt. James Lyons (Engine 3), and firefighter Joseph McGuirk (Engine 3) reports that they have also become disoriented while searching the 5th floor. All six men died that night, they are known as the Worcester Six or W6.

Barnes and Levesque, both homeless and mentally ill, were charged with manslaughter. Charges were later dismissed. Firetraps in Worcester are now marked, and procedures have been altered. After much deliberation about how to memorialize the fallen and what to do with the fire site, a new fire station, serving as a working memorial, was built on the land where the fire occurred.

USFA report, and slideshows from the fire and immediate aftermath, further recovery and services, the following years, and the new fire station.
posted by rollbiz (27 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Buildings marked as firetraps also make great derelict building photoshoots.

Snark aside, I like the idea of a working memorial. Marking the ground of the fallen as sacred and not to be touched except as a tribute to the dead is weird, especially in a profession where fatalities due to hazardous conditions are not always avoidable. Give a memorial to one group, and others might feel slighted on behalf of their dead family or friends.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:46 AM on December 3, 2009

Memorial services will be held in Worcester tonight, starting around 5PM when firefighters will march from Union Station to the site on Franklin Street. Mass will be held, then at 6:13PM the box will be re-struck in memory and the names of the fallen will be read.

On the off chance that anyone from Metafilter is attending, shoot me a message. I'll be there with the Red Cross and would love to meet you.
posted by rollbiz at 6:46 AM on December 3, 2009

posted by fourcheesemac at 7:03 AM on December 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Give a memorial to one group, and others might feel slighted on behalf of their dead family or friends.

My understanding is that firefighters are very good at making sure that their fallen colleagues are remembered. There's an IAFF Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Colorado Springs, with a memorial wall and a remembrance ceremony every year, attended by folks from across the country.
posted by Sublimity at 7:03 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Excellent post.
posted by MarshallPoe at 7:28 AM on December 3, 2009

My understanding is that firefighters are very good at making sure that their fallen colleagues are remembered.

My father was a firefighter. I can assure you, there is no more tightly-knit profession. The fallen are always remembered.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:39 AM on December 3, 2009

then at 6:13PM the box will be re-struck in memory

Can you explain what this means? "The box will be re-struck"??

Also: this is a great post.
posted by anastasiav at 7:47 AM on December 3, 2009

good god. what a tragic story. all the way around.
posted by msconduct at 7:55 AM on December 3, 2009

Great post. I remember reading a very in-depth article (Vanity Fair?) about this years ago - going into great detail about how the fire spread and putting together a timeline as best as possible. I still think about this, so it's nice to see a follow up.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 7:59 AM on December 3, 2009

anastasiav, it's clunky old-school language but at 6:13 the call for Box 5-1438 will be given over the dispatch radio.

Some information on the original box system, although fire alarm boxes are rarely the initial notifications for fires anymore, in many cities each address is assigned a box number based on the nearest fire alarm box.
posted by rollbiz at 8:10 AM on December 3, 2009

My father was a firefighter in Mass. and marched in the Worcester funeral procession. If I recall correctly, every department in the state sent representatives, and hundreds more came in from other states. The sheer number of firefighters in the procession was mind-boggling. I have never seen such a more concerted, concentrated show of support between people in the same profession. They stood together to honor those who fell together.

(and even though he worked 100+ miles west, Dad's dept would observe the anniversary of Boston's 1972 Hotel Vendome tragedy which killed 9 firefighters.)
posted by Spatch at 8:18 AM on December 3, 2009

I lived in Worcester during this period, and remember it well. The city came to a standstill afterward. The Vice President spoke at the funeral, which was held in the full-to-capacity Centrum.

To have six firefighters die in a single blaze was a disaster not experienced in the US for decades. Of course, less than two years later, hundreds of firefighters would die in 9/11. But it seems the enormity of that day hasn't diminished remembrance of what Worcester lost, 10 years ago.
posted by borborygmi at 8:30 AM on December 3, 2009

Outstanding post, thanks. Thought this was interesting [from wikipedia]

Denis Leary's first cousin, Jerry Lucey, and his childhood friend and high school classmate, Lt. Tommy Spencer, were both victims of the fire. In an effort to find a positive way to deal with this overwhelming loss, Denis established The Leary Firefighters Foundation in the spring of 2000.
posted by porn in the woods at 8:34 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

On a "Fresh Air" interview, Leary spoke about this event while discussing his connection to the "Rescue Me" television series: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102962938
posted by wenestvedt at 9:03 AM on December 3, 2009

I remember this fire from Sean Flynn's intense Esquire story ("The Perfect Fire") from July 2000. He later wrote a book, 3000 Degrees: The True Story of a Deadly Fire and the Men Who Fought It.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:22 AM on December 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

The Northeast and Rust Belt are simply full of buildings like this. They're irresistible to those seeking shelter. I take a lot of photos of abandoned buildings and I've lost count of the times I've discovered myself to be not alone. As bad as this was, if there's a report of people in the building, firefighters will still go inside to find them.
posted by tommasz at 9:32 AM on December 3, 2009

. . . . . .
posted by luminous phenomena at 9:38 AM on December 3, 2009

Excellent post, rollbiz, thank you.

I grew up in Worcester and was living nearby when this fire occurred. I had a former sweetheart in one responding station and two childhood friends stationed in another ... I was in my car when I heard news about 6 fatalities and I expected it to be a fire in Boston. But then when I heard "Worcester" and "cold storage," my heart sank because I knew their stations would have been the first responding companies. Years before the fire, my special guy had told me how he feared that building and hoped he would never have to face a fire there.

I canceled all plans for the day to stay home awaiting the names of the 6 deceased - I compulsively sat by the tv switching local channels and and surfing fire message boards trying to get word. That was a terrible day for me. I can't fathom what it was like for spouses, children, and parents to have to endure that kind of wait.

When the names were released, my friends weren't among the dead, and although I was relieved to learn they were alive, something in them surely died. They were among the searchers and they suffered grievously for the loss of their friends and partners, bearing a tremendous burden of survivor guilt.

Those days were among some of the saddest days of my life. The funeral procession was gut-wrenching, but there was some comfort in how the firefighter and the Worcester community responded.

I love that there is a fire station where the building used to be. That is perfect.

Thank you for compiling this post, rollbiz. I really won't be able to read all these links until another time when I don't have to work because even just reading a few things have set me to weeping.
posted by madamjujujive at 9:45 AM on December 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

I still remember that evening and the outpouring of grief and support.

Dad's dept would observe the anniversary of Boston's 1972 Hotel Vendome tragedy which killed 9 firefighters.

And across the street, kitty-corner on the Commonwealth mall, a memorial monument was dedicated in 1997 (on the 25th anniversary of that tragedy).
posted by ericb at 9:58 AM on December 3, 2009

A sobering and eye-opening post, and timely. I recently joined my town's volunteer department and started primary firefighter training at a state-run fire academy class. I don't have an emergency background, and it's mostly new to me; much is said about the impact of today's improved building codes, NFPA standards, operating procedures/guidelines, a "new culture of safety", and the National Incident Management System.

My first reaction was surprise that a tragedy like this could happen in an apparently well-equipped emergency response system. We're being taught how all levels of operations, from the firefighter to the incident commander, work together to keep firefighters from getting killed searching empty buildings. But Worcester was a decade ago, and some of what we're taught today was learned the hard way.

I learned how to inspect and don my breathing apparatus a couple days ago... imagining all those guys running out of air...
posted by maniabug at 1:33 PM on December 3, 2009

This post certainly deserves it:


I think that the new station is a beautiful building, and a fitting memorial.

It's all too easy for a building like that to become a deathtrap. Sadly, something similar happened in Charleston, SC in June of 2007. 9 firefighters were killed battling a blaze in a furniture warehouse. The Wikipedia article about it is quite detailed. Again, it became another tragic learning experience. RIP, brothers.
posted by drstein at 2:13 PM on December 3, 2009

I know this will be an odd take to take, but can I say it's kind of awesome- in a real justice sort of way- that the charges against the two homeless people were later dismissed?

It sounds like it was all a terrible accident like most fires are, yet it's nice to see that an American court actually decided that sometimes bad things just happen, and no one's really at fault, and that's why they're called "tragedies"- even though there's often a strong social urge to find someone to blame and punish...
posted by hincandenza at 3:20 PM on December 3, 2009

I also lived nearby at the time and it was heartbreaking to realize so many had died. Especially when the aftermath showed that the building was unoccupied. I still remember crying as I watched the televised memorial service.

posted by saffry at 4:12 PM on December 3, 2009

I remember when this happened, I was in middle school at the time and didn't really think that it was a big deal. I remember driving by on the high way that was right above/next to the building and there was just smoke coming up and all around the high way. I also remember that on the day of the memorial service we eat lunch in the class rooms and watched the memorial service on TV. It was the only time in high school when we didn't eat lunch in the cafeteria.

A lot of fire fighters from the area took the couple of days after the fire and hand dug through all the bricks to find the bodies of their fallen brothers, that's when I realized how big this situation was.

posted by lilkeith07 at 4:53 PM on December 3, 2009


I'm a Worcester native, and I remember feeling overwhelmed with heartbreak and anxiety as the news of this fire broke.

In addition to the appropriate relocation of the fire house to the location of the disaster, I was always heartened by the fact that one of my favorite old late night haunts, the Kenmore Diner, which was destroyed in the fire and later demolished, has also risen from the ashes and is still in business.

Great post.
posted by Seppaku at 4:55 PM on December 3, 2009

Oops, meant this to be the first link to the Kenmore Diner.
posted by Seppaku at 4:58 PM on December 3, 2009

"Barnes and Levesque, both homeless and mentally ill"

It's a shame we didn't react by also recognizing that, in the richest country on Earth, we shouldn't leave our mentally ill untreated in the street.

But I guess that message doesn't make for compelling TV images.
posted by Wufpak at 7:11 PM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

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