PEABODY - Since his tragic death in a burning apartment building two nights before Christmas, friends and relatives of Peabody firefighter James M. Rice have talked about the many lives he touched.
That was apparent yesterday afternoon, as more than a thousand mourners stood outside the Conway, Cahill-Brodeur Funeral Home on Lynn Street, waiting in the cold to pay their respects before the start of a wake for the 42-year-old father of three young children.
Mourners hugged one another, many wiped back tears, and more stood across the street as a procession of firefighters and police officers made their way inside the funeral home for a ceremonial walk past Rice’s casket at about 3 p.m.
An American flag flew at half-staff outside, and a Peabody fire truck bedecked with black and purple banners was parked in the lot. An MBTA bus carrying about 40 area fire chiefs in their dress uniforms had an electronic message above its windshield: “Rest in Peace . . . Firefighter Jim Rice.’’
Brian Goldsworthy - brother of Rice’s widow, Amy - stood in the frigid night air outside the funeral home and said the outpouring of community support has been a comfort to the family.
“It means everything,’’ he said. “It’s been overwhelming in a good way.’’
The family was especially touched to see relatives of Worcester firefighter John D. Davies Sr., who was killed three weeks ago while searching for a missing person in a flame-engulfed three-decker, come to the wake yesterday.
“For Amy it was a sign that the support will be there for the long term,’’ Goldsworthy said.
The Rice family celebrated Christmas Eve at their Peabody home, as they do every year, with presents Rice had bought sitting under the tree, he said.
He described his brother-in-law as a quiet man who avoided the limelight while serving others.
“I think he wouldn’t want this [attention], but I think he’s smiling,’’ he said.
Rice always put others first, said Goldsworthy’s wife, Courtney.
“He was willing to give it all,’’ she said. “He gave it all, and he’d help anyone in need.’’
After the procession of firefighters and police officers made its way through the funeral home, Captain Jay Dowling of the Peabody Fire Department told reporters outside that his longtime friend had been a major asset to the department during his 11 years of service.
“He was a great firefighter,’’ Dowling said. “He was [always] the first guy in the building.’’
Rice was killed Dec. 23 when he responded to a fire that tore through an apartment building on Hancock Street and displaced about a dozen people. Authorities have not determined a cause of death, and the fire is still under investigation, but authorities have ruled out arson.
Dowling said Rice’s family is doing “as well as can be expected,’’ and his children plan to return to school next week. He said the community support, including providing meals for Rice’s wife and children, has been “unbelievable.’’
Community members provided assistance during the wake, as cheerleaders from the Peabody Veterans Memorial High School football team, Red Cross workers, and others passed out refreshments to mourners.
Peabody Fire Captain John Hosman said he and his colleagues are deeply saddened by the loss of Rice, who friends have described as a devoted family man always ready with a joke.
“There’s just a lot of pain going through the department,’’ Hosman said. “Two days before Christmas we lost a good friend.’’
Retired Peabody firefighter Bobby Graves, 55, said it was comforting to see so many firefighters from other communities yesterday.
“It helps the hurt,’’ he said. “You know that everyone on [a] fire department understands what we’re going through.’’
Arthur Wood, 64, also a retired Peabody firefighter, said Rice had a strong work ethic.
“Jimmy, as far as I was concerned, he was a firefighter’s firefighter,’’ Wood said.
He said the death of a colleague is a devastating blow to everyone in the profession.
“Any firefighter [killed on duty], whether it’s a small fire or a big fire . . . it’s bad,’’ Wood said. “It really hurts us, and I hope that it awakens the public to how important we really are.’’
Fire Chief Paul J. Zbikowski of Ashburnham, president of the Fire Chiefs’ Association of Massachusetts Inc., reflected on the shock of losing two colleagues in separate cities around the anniversary of a December 1999 blaze in Worcester that killed six firefighters.
“This is the day that every chief dreads,’’ he said. “So close to the anniversary of [the 1999 Worcester fire] . . . It goes to show the [risks] we face every day.’’
State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said that thousands of firefighters from Massachusetts and beyond are expected to attend Rice’s funeral today.
“They all feel the loss of Firefighter Rice,’’ he said. “The fire service is unique [in that] when one of us hurts, we all hurt.’’
Edward A. Kelly, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, a statewide union, said that Rice’s wife has shown great strength in the face of her husband’s death.
He said that Rice’s good character was evident by “the family he left behind,’’ which includes two daughters, Alyssa, 12, and Katelyn, 9, and a son, Ryan, 7.
Rice was a parishioner of St. Vasilios Greek Orthodox Church in Peabody. A funeral service will be held this morning at 10 a.m. at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Peabody because the Greek Orthodox church is being renovated.
Chief celebrant of the funeral service will be Metropolitan Methodios of Boston, with the assistance of Rice’s pastor, the Rev. Christopher P. Foustoukos.
Goldsworthy, Rice’s brother-in-law, said the dedicated father and professional will be sorely missed.
“He loved his family, he loved his job, he loved his firefighter family and all of his friends,’’ Goldsworthy said.