Worcester firefighters remember own deadly blaze after S.C. fire
WORCESTER, Mass. -- In the eight years since six of their comrades died in a warehouse blaze, firefighters here have balanced the pain of the tragedy with the need to move forward.
The night of Dec. 3, 1999, is commemorated with memorial photos that hang at the firehouses and the number "6" emblazoned on the side of their trucks. There are plans to build a new station at the scene of the fire.
But when news came out Tuesday morning that nine firefighters died battling a warehouse fire in Charleston, S.C., the fire department was violently lurched into a past it still struggles to come to terms with.
"My heart started to race and my hands were actually shaking," said Mike McNamee, one of the fire department's district chiefs who was on duty the night the Worcester Cold Storage fire was sparked by a homeless couple staying in the abandoned building.
"I know what those guys in Charleston are going through and what they're about to go through," he said. "It's not going to be easy at all."
The year following the Worcester fire was filled with countless memorials and an outpouring of support from the community. But it also was a time of intense grieving that brought with it depression, anger and frustration.
For a department that hadn't lost a firefighter since the early 1960s, a sense of invincibility was shattered and confidence was shaken.
To help get beyond the feeling of despair, the department beefed up its training, focusing on how firefighters could best protect themselves while trying to extinguish a blaze and evacuate a smoldering building.
"Our focus was always on saving the people inside," McNamee said. "We always figured we'd be fine."
Their new protocols became examples for other departments that sent their own firefighters to Worcester for training.
State building codes and fire codes also were rewritten to make structures safer for firefighters. Abandoned buildings, for example, are now required to be securely boarded up and must be marked with an "x" so firefighters know they're empty.
In the wake of the Charleston fire, Worcester firefighters are poised to do whatever they can to help. Gov. Deval Patrick also offered the state's support in a letter of sympathy to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.
"We'll never forget the outpouring of support we received," said Frank Raffa, who heads the Worcester firefighter's union. He said he spoke with union officials in Charleston, and offered them advice and aid in dealing with the media, fundraising organizations and memorial services.
"The most important thing is to make sure they give the families a buffer zone," Raffa said.
After the Worcester fire, several firefighters volunteered as liaisons between family members and the departments, making sure the concerns of relatives were answered and families received the help and services they needed.
But Worcester's firefighters know the words and memorials that are sure to come will provide only so much comfort. While McNamee encouraged the South Carolina firefighters to talk about the tragedy and get counseling for their grief, he said time is the only thing that will help them heal.
And even time will help only so much.
"Every time the memory comes back, it's like a punch in the gut," he said.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)