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Ray McNamara, firefighter who survived an explosion to inspire others, dies at 79

Mr. McNamara with his son Brian at Station 3 in Newton in 2001.KREITER, Suzanne GLOBE STAFF/The Boston Globe

To no one’s surprise, Ray McNamara was the first to run down the long hallway at the chemical plant in Newton Highlands the night of Oct. 25, 1993, toward a fire that exploded minutes later, leaving him severely burned and near death.

A Newton Fire Department lieutenant, he had a reputation for being so eager to take on and finish even life’s smallest chores that his wife called him “do-it-yesterday Ray.”

Leading the way into the H.C. Starck Inc. building that night, he grabbed a barrel filled with 100 pounds of burning molten sodium and tipped it at an angle so other firefighters could extinguish the blaze. That left Mr. McNamara closest to the blast when moisture they didn’t know was in the room ignited a chemical explosion that shook the fire engines parked outside.

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The most critically wounded among 11 injured firefighters, he wasn’t expected to live, but did — becoming an inspirational figure for more than 28 years to firefighters everywhere and to those who had suffered severe burns.

Mr. McNamara, who underwent about three dozen operations after the explosion and more recently was treated for leukemia, died in his sleep early Jan. 11 in his Watertown home. He was 79.

Mr. McNamara held the helmet he wore into the facility on the night of the explosion.KREITER, Suzanne GLOBE STAFF/The Boston Globe

Through all he endured in the years since he nearly died, Mr. McNamara — Ray Mac to his countless friends — remained at heart a firefighter who gladly would have jumped on an engine, if only he could.

“I’d go back tomorrow,” he told the Globe in 1995, in his first in-depth interview. “I loved the job. I loved the give-and-take with the guys. I miss it terribly.”

Blinded by the explosion, Mr. McNamara regained sight in 1994 after one of his many surgeries, only for it to slip away again in 1996.

“He actually said to me, ‘Kevin, if I had eyes, I’d go back to work,’ " said his brother Kevin of Newton.

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Instead, Mr. McNamara offered the kinds of insights into life that those with eyesight often overlook.

When a Rhode Island nightclub fire killed 100 people in 2003 and left many others severely burned, Mr. McNamara drew on his own experiences to speak about what the survivors would face.

“It’s going to take a lot of strength to pull them through. I would advise people who are family and friends to hang in with them. There is, 90 percent of the time, a light at the end of this tunnel,” he told the Globe that February.

“It will sometimes seem to the people involved that there is no light, that this is not going to end, that nobody is going to want them,” he added. “They’re going to find out how caring their friends are.”

For Mr. McNamara, the person who cared the most was his wife, Denise, who was at his side for his almost 14 months of hospitalization. They had only been married two years when he ran into the plant that night.

“I’ll tell you his wife is a saint. She’s a walking saint,” Kevin said. “She was the guiding light in his life and in our lives, too.”

Mr. McNamara, jogging with his wife, Denise.KREITER, Suzanne GLOBE STAFF/The Boston Globe

Raymond Paul McNamara was born in Waltham on Jan. 17, 1942, and grew up mostly in Newton.

He was the oldest of five siblings whose mother was Virginia Towne McNamara, a homemaker, and whose father was Robert E. McNamara, a salesman.

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“My mother and father, they did the best they could,” Kevin said. “They stuck together and they had a deep devotion to God, as did Raymond. He was devout Catholic. He wore it on his sleeve.”

Mr. McNamara went to Newton High School before it was renamed Newton North. Then he joined the Navy, Kevin said, which allowed him to see a lot of the world in postings from Cuba to Morocco.

In 1970, he joined the Newton Fire Department, and for a time before taking the lieutenant’s test, he was one of the department’s emergency medical technicians on the rescue vehicle.

“Ray was a very dedicated EMT on that rescue,” said Joe Capello, a retired Newton firefighter who worked with him as an EMT in those years. “Ray always wanted to be the one in the back with the patient.”

Mr. McNamara’s first marriage ended in divorce, and he kept busy as a single parent to his sons.

“He tried working three jobs that whole time, and he did,” said his son Mike McNamara of Sudbury, a Newton deputy fire chief. “There was the fire department, and he was working as a medic at football games — plus he rode a private ambulance company. He did what he had to do to take care of us.”

Mike said his father “was a legend on our job as well — his toughness, his bravery, his courage.”

And Mr. McNamara’s caring extended beyond immediate family to all relatives who sought his counsel.

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“He was, like, the patriarch of the whole family,” said his niece Emily Doss. “The question was always, ‘Does Uncle Ray know? What did Uncle Ray say about it?’ "

She credited his guidance with her decision to pursue a law enforcement career: “He’s the reason I’m successful in my life now.”

In 1991, Mr. McNamara married Denise Civetti, who became accustomed to his diligence about completing tasks, usually ahead of schedule.

“He’d have a calendar for the week and rip off the week before it was over,” she told the Globe in 2001. “The clock was always 15 minutes ahead. I never knew what time it was, never mind what day it was.”

That energy for life, even after he recovered from the explosion, extended to exercise and music.

He ran the Falmouth Road Race about 17 times before the explosion and walked it with assistance from family members many more times since.

Mr. McNamara, who loved music about as much as he loved watching the Red Sox, was an avid R&B fan who joined Solomon Burke on stage at the Roxy in 2001 when the soul singer performed a benefit for the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Sumner M. Redstone Burn Center.

The two sang “Take Me (Just as I Am),” a song Mr. McNamara credited with helping him endure the unendurable, and which he considered an anthem from him to Denise:

… Only you alone

You’re the one that’s

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Given me the courage and

Strength to go on and on

And for you, I sing this song

A funeral Mass was said on Saturday for Mr. McNamara, who in addition to Denise, his son Mike, his brother Kevin, and niece Emily leaves two other sons, Joseph of Newton and Brian of Waltham; two stepchildren, Charles Cardillo of Woodville, Texas, and Anne-Marie Cardillo of Watertown; two sisters, Mary Ciraso of Waltham and Marcia McNamara of Watertown; and 12 grandchildren.

A celebration of Mr. McNamara’s life will be scheduled after the pandemic.

“He had a good heart,” Kevin said. “He had a beautiful heart.”

With boundless compassion that preceded his injuries and seemed to grow with the passing years, Mr. McNamara spoke with all who reached out for comfort.

“So many people called him for guidance, so many people he didn’t even know,” said Louise Civetti, a sister-in-law.

“He’s probably saved a lot of people,” she said, and he encouraged others to follow his example of staying in constant motion, of helping others. “He would pick up the phone and say, ‘Did you get that done? You have to do the next right thing.’ "


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.