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‘This morning, the sun didn’t rise’: Worcester grieves for 6 firefighters presumed killed on the job

Fire crews battled a blaze on Dec. 4, 1999, at the former Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building.Globe Staff/File

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 1999, editions of the Boston Sunday Globe.

WORCESTER — As this city grappled with the presumed loss of six firefighters yesterday, solemn crews and investigators began the grim process of recovering bodies from a sprawling, fire-ravaged warehouse.

Throughout the day, family members came in busloads to the fire scene and stood transfixed before the smoldering brick facade of the old Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building.

What once had reportedly been used as a shelter by the homeless had now become a sad memorial to the six men who entered the vacant, blazing warehouse Friday night and never returned.

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Though the men had been missing for more than 24 hours, officials last night were still hesitant to confirm that they were dead.

“As far as we’re concerned, they’re still missing,” State Fire Marshal Steven Coan said.

But it was clear yesterday — from the words of city leaders and clergy members, from the faces of family members and firefighters who went to the scene to watch — that Worcester was a city in mourning, the site of one of the greatest losses of firefighters in recent memory.

“This morning, the sun didn’t rise. It didn’t rise because last night we lost six members of our family,” Worcester Mayor Ray Mariano said. “They were firefighters, but more importantly, they were members of our family.”

Late last night, fire officials released the names of the six men, which relatives and other sources had revealed earlier. They were identified as Lieutenant Thomas E. Spencer, 42, of Worcester; and firefighters Timothy P. Jackson, 51, of Hopedale; James F. Lyons, 34, of Worcester; Joseph T. McGuirk, 38, of Rochdale; Paul A. Brotherton, 41, of Auburn; and Jeremiah M. Lucey, 38, of Cherry Valley.

Lucey’s wife, Michelle, said he was chosen to be on the fire department rescue squad straight out of training.

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“He was the best,” she said in tears during a telephone interview. “He did things all the way. He was the best husband and father ever, and I’ll never find another one like him again.”

Lucey, a Worcester native, has two sons, John, 8, and Jeremiah, 11. In all, the men believed to have perished in the fire ranged in age from 34 to 51 and left 15 children behind, one district fire chief said.

President Clinton expressed his condolences for the victims’ families.

“The six firefighters, who are now missing and presumed dead, valiantly put their lives on the line in the effort to save others and protect their city,” Clinton said in a statement. “Their courageous service reminds us all of the tremendous commitment and sacrifice made by the thousands of firefighters across America who risk their own lives every day to protect our communities.”

An impromptu memorial popped up at the scene of the fire in the days after the blaze.John Blanding/Globe Staff/File

The five-alarm fire was first reported Friday at about 6:15 p.m. at the building on Franklin Street, just a few blocks from the Centrum arena and the Worcester Common Outlets, a well-known mall.

As the somber search for the missing firefighters continued throughout the day, agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, arson investigators and others interviewed firefighters and witnesses for clues to its origin.

Fire officials on Friday said the fire was suspicious in nature because it was burning in two areas when firefighters first arrived.

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As the fire burned, dark clouds of smoke spread across the city, sending frightened people into the streets to observe the blaze and the firefighting efforts.

The fire caused major traffic problems throughout the day, as both the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 290 — the main highway through this city of about 167,000 people — remained closed, State Police said. Some of the westbound lanes were scheduled to be reopened last night.

If the firefighters’ deaths are confirmed, it would be the nation’s worst loss of life involving firefighters since 1994, when 14 firefighters perished in a forest fire in Colorado. In 1978, six New York City firefighters died when a burning supermarket’s roof collapsed.

For many in Massachusetts, the fire in Worcester conjured memories of the infamous Hotel Vendome fire in 1972, which killed nine firefighters in Boston’s Back Bay.

Friday night’s fire quickly became a nightmare because of the building’s construction — a brick exterior with no windows, cork insulation, and large amounts of open space. The conditions fed the fire, causing it to spread quickly through the maze-like structure, officials said.

“In two to three seconds, you couldn’t see six inches in front of your face,” said Worcester District Chief Michael McNamee, who led the first group of firefighters into the building.

At least 27 firefighters were inside the building, apparently searching for homeless people, when police reported that two of the men were missing. When conditions began to deteroriate, McNamee ordered a retreat to the corner stairwells as fire commanders began a tense head count.

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Eventually, four other firefighters would be lost in the black smoke.

Officials said all of the remaining men were pulled out of the building, although firefighters from the central station and one district office demanded to be let inside to rescue their friends.

But before investigators can enter the smoldering hulk to look for the missing victims, they must first know what occurred behind the building’s blackened walls. Yesterday afternoon, a crane tore away part of the building’s east side, giving invesigators and engineers a chance to peer inside.

The center of the building had collapsed, Coan said. The top floors of the five-story warehouse building had pancaked on top of each other. The firefighters are believed to be buried beneath the rubble, officials said.

The building that took their lives has been empty for nearly 10 years. Worcester Fire Chief Dennis Budd, who was visibly shaken, said the building was constructed around 1917.

Throughout yesterday, busloads of family members were driven to the site to grieve. A prayer service was held began in the morning. Family members stood before the sprawling warehouse, hugged, cried and walked away.

“That is all they can do,” Red Cross mental health worker Marsha Kovach said.

Gina Tangney, whose husband, Brian, 46, is a firefighter with Worcester’s Engine 13, gathered family and friends at her home and made calls throughout the night, hoping for word that he was safe. At 11 p.m. he called.

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“It was probably the best feeling I’ve had ever,” she said. “Lots of relief.”

When her husband arrived home yesterday at 10 a.m., she said, their 14-year-old twin sons and 17-year-old daughter sat around he table as he silently sipped coffee.

“He just couldn’t speak,” she said.