PEABODY- For nearly two decades they played softball and baseball together, tailgated at Patriots games as season ticket holders, and shared laughs over firehouse pranks. But yesterday, Peabody Fire Captain Jay Dowling helped return the body of his fallen friend in a solemn procession from the state medical examiner’s office in Boston to a funeral home here.
“That’s the last thing you want to be doing, and it was an emotional time,’’ Dowling said yesterday, about an hour after the procession. “It was very supportive along the way . . . it was a short ride today bringing him home.’’
James M. Rice died Friday while battling a three-alarm fire on Hancock Street, according to authorities. Rice, 42, was between the second and third stories of a three-decker multifamily residence when he apparently inhaled toxic fumes and went down while fighting the intense flames and smoke. Twelve people escaped the blaze and are staying at a local hotel, city officials said yesterday.
Dowling and Captain John Hosman recalled yesterday their friendship with Rice, nicknamed “Jim Ed’’ just like the Hall of Fame Boston Red Sox outfielder with the same name.
“He was definitely the jokester,’’ Hosman said. Dowling recalled that Rice would sometimes photoshop pictures of fellow firefighters to get laughs.
In a sad coincidence, Rice, who had been a banker with BayBank and BankBoston before becoming a firefighter, oversaw a fund for families of fallen firefighters.
“He was the treasurer of the Peabody Firefighter’s Relief Association, and he kept an eye on funds that were for situations like this,’’ said Hosman, the vice president of the association. Dowling serves as president.
Rice was born in Saugus. He attended St. John’s Prep and played football and baseball there before graduating in 1987. He earned a marketing degree from Bentley College and went into banking. Then came a career change.
“At one point, he wanted to go to the law enforcement side and then he heard about firefighting, and I think he was drawn to it,’’ Dowling said.
“He just wanted to help people, and he chose a career where he could do that,’’ Hosman said.
Throughout his 11-year firefighting career, Rice remained a devoted family man, his co-workers said. Rice leaves his wife of 16 years, Amy, and three children, ages 12, 9, and 7.
“You could always see him dropping his kids off in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon,’’ Hosman said. “He loved going to his daughter’s soccer games.’’
Russell Lewis, president of the Peabody Firefighter’s Union, said yesterday that Rice, like all firefighters, had a very large extended family.
“He had a great big family here,’’ Lewis said, inside the department’s headquarters on Lowell Street. “With any family there is always some kind of tension, but you never saw that with him.’’
Authorities said the cause of his death remain undetermined.
The hearse carrying Rice’s body from the medical examiner’s office in Boston to the Conway, Cahill-Brodeur Funeral Home on Lynn Street drove by the headquarters at about 2 p.m., and firefighters lined up outside the firehouse to salute.
The Saugus Fire Department had at least two firetrucks in the procession.
“[Our fire station] did assist with it. We’re in it to help them,’’ said Saugus fire dispatcher Patrick Murphy.
A wake has been scheduled at the funeral home from 3 to 8 p.m. Thursday. A funeral service is set for 10 a.m. Friday at St. John the Baptist Church in Peabody, followed by burial in Cedar Grove Cemetery, the funeral home’s website says.
Peabody Mayor Michael J. Bonfanti said he was standing yesterday afternoon on the side of Route 1 when the procession carrying Rice’s coffin passed, and he was struck by the outpouring of support from the community.
“My first thought was the respect that people were showing, because usually a day like today is crazy with traffic, but you could see that they understood what was going on,’’ he said.