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‘Your tragedy is ours’: President Clinton joins thousands in saluting fallen Worcester firefighters

President Clinton bowed his head during a memorial service honoring the six fallen firefighters.David L. Ryan/File/David L. Ryan

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 10, 1999, editions of The Boston Globe.

WORCESTER — Amid a sea of white-gloved hands saluting in unison and the mournful strains of bagpipes, President Clinton told those honoring Worcester’s six fallen firefighters yesterday: “Your tragedy is ours. Your men are ours.”

The firefighters killed answering their last alarm — Paul Brotherton, Jeremiah Lucey, Thomas Spencer, Timothy Jackson, James Lyons, and Joseph McGuirk — “embodied the best of our nation,” Clinton said, speaking at the end of a stirring two-hour tribute attended yesterday by about 15,000 people at the Worcester Centrum.

Firefighters from as far away as Hawaii and Ireland streamed into the Worcester Centrum beginning at 9 a.m. Tens of thousands of spectators stood outside the arena and lined the streets during a 3-mile procession before the ceremony.

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“Words have a poor power to alleviate the pain you feel now,” Clinton said. “But as you look around this vast hall and know that there are thousands and thousands more standing outside and other places, we hope that by our collective presence we will speak louder than words in saying that your tragedy is ours. Your men are ours. Our whole country honors them and you.”

After Clinton spoke, a state trooper played taps on a glimmering silver trumpet. A firefighter’s wife wiped tears from her eyes, clutching the compact triangle of a US flag that flew over the Capitol on Dec. 3, the night of the fire. One of her three now-fatherless boys clung to her side.

The young men were among 17 left without a father after the six firefighters died in the five-alarm blaze inside the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co., a vacant five-story building that dates to the turn of the century. Two bodies have been recovered but four remain buried in the charred rubble. Authorities say a homeless couple living in the building accidentally ignited the blaze with a candle.

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Two of the firefighters were trapped looking for homeless people during the blaze at a Franklin Street warehouse Dec. 3, and four others died trying to rescue those colleagues. The search for remains continued yesterday in the smoldering rubble.

During the service, fellow firefighters, clergy, and a wide array of political leaders rose from the slate-gray stage, lined with six yellow helmets and bright flowers, to praise men who matched Worcester Mayor Raymond Mariano’s definition of a hero: “An average citizen who does something extraordinary.”

Again and again, the speakers tried to capture the depth of the firefighters’ actions last Friday — everyday men plunging into an inferno to save strangers, then plunging in again to try to rescue their own.

Governor Paul Cellucci likened the “uncommon courage and selflessness” of the firefighters to the veterans who fought in World War II. “They were courageous not because they did not feel fear, but because they were willing to fight fear on behalf of others,” the governor said.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in a reference to the loss of family members in his lifetime, said, “I know how hard it is, how much you yearn to reach out and touch the living memories you can see so clearly before your eyes — the smiles, the warmth, the Sunday dinners, the last movie you watched together. . .”

“I wish that loved ones did not have to die too young. I wish that tragedy never haunted a single soul. But I know that sometimes life breaks your heart, and I believe we best honor those who have been lost . . . when we pledge that they will always be in our hearts, and their example will never die.”

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Frank Raffa, president of the Worcester Fire Fighters Local 1099, said that his colleagues showed no hesitation entering the building looking for homeless people thought to be inside, and that “when two of our brothers called mayday, four more of our brother Worcester firefighters went into that inferno, again, without hesitation.”

His voice choking with emotion, Raffa pledged that “we will not leave that scene, we will not rest until we bring our brothers home. Only then can we have closure to this terrible tragedy. God bless Jerry and Paul, Tim and Tom, Jay and Joe, and their loved ones.”

Alfred K. Whitehead, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the Worcester firefighters shared a bond that led them to rescue efforts without hesitation. “They were engaged in an endeavor that is a measure of human greatness,” he said. “They made a difference in this world because they died doing something that mattered.”

The families of the firefighters killed in the line of duty, who ranged in ages from 34 to 51, were presented with the International Association of Fire Fighters’ Martin E. Pierce Memorial Medal, named for the father of the current Boston fire commissioner. The elder Pierce had been a pioneer in promoting benefits for the families left behind by firefighters who died in the line of duty.

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As a tribute to their heroism, the names of the six men will be carved into a memorial wall for fallen firefighters in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Congressman James P. McGovern noted the courage of the firefighters, their relatives, and their entire community. He said the spirit of Worcester had been demonstrated in “a thousand cups of coffee, a thousand encouraging words, a thousand strong shoulders to lean on, a thousand prayers. Thank you for showing the world what I have always known.”

The day was crystal clear and chilly, cold enough to turn breath into puffs of mist in the early morning. The normal rules of life in and around Worcester were suspended — schools and businesses closed, streets kept clear, parking garages free. Motorists, many of them with their headlights on in honor of the firefighters, were waved through the tolls off the Massachusetts Turnpike leading to the city.

The processional started at 9:20 and was still going when the memorial service, delayed as the firefighters filed into the hall, began at 11:20.

The pageantry of mourning was all around, inside and outside the Centrum. Black ribbons were attached to lapels, spray-painted sheets hung on overpasses praising the “fallen heroes,” and tributes were spelled out in black plastic letters on roadside signs normally used to announce holiday shopping sales.

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The estimate of firefighters who converged on Worcester yesterday was 30,000. The total number of people either attending the service, standing outside the Centrum, or lining the procession route was estimated by some officials to be as high as 50,000.

The 500 members of the Worcester Fire Department were given the day off, though many chose not to attend the service, instead opting to remain at the warehouse site, which is being referred to as “sacred ground.” Large-screen televisions were set up at the site broadcasting the service.

The crane being used to knock down a wall of the gutted building was switched off during the service but started up again as soon as the ceremony ended. Firefighters walked from the Centrum to the still-smoldering ruins and were joined there by Vice President Al Gore.

Clinton and Gore attended the service, though only Clinton spoke. It is common for the White House to be represented at a service for victims of a tragedy, but it is unusual for the president and vice president to attend together.

The two met privately with the families of the firefighters before the service, consoling them and listening to their stories of lost loved ones.

Grouped in six clusters, the family members watched local TV coverage of the procession of thousands of firefighters making their somber trek to the sports arena for the service. Guided by Raffa, Clinton and Gore moved separately from family to family.

“There were more smiles and remembrances than tears,” presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart said after the meeting. “We told them how important their services were, how sorry he is for their loss, and how proud the country is of their fathers, brothers, spouses and all the other firefighters who serve in the way that they do.”

One family talked about the Thanksgiving they spent together just a little more than a week before the blaze. Another man showed the president a large, framed photo of his dead son, Lockhart said.

Clinton’s arrival was greeted quietly but warmly by Worcester residents, long loyal to the president. Clinton got a solid welcome last year when he went to Worcester in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky investigation.

As the president’s motorcade cruised through the streets of the city, local residents stood on the sides of the road, some crying, some holding their hands over the hearts or saluting, and some waving small US flags.