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House collapse kills Worcester firefighter

A house fire on Arlington Street in Worcester caused the building to collapse, killing one firefighter and injuring another. The building to the left in this photo was the site of a fire earlier this year.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

WORCESTER - As wind-whipped flames engulfed a three-family home before dawn yesterday, city firefighters rushed a dozen residents through the heat and smoke to safety. When one tenant said his friend might still be trapped inside, several firefighters rushed back in.

While they desperately searched the building, the entire back wall gave way, trapping two firefighters beneath the wreckage. One was rescued, seriously injured but alive.

His partner, a father of four who was among the first responders to a 1999 warehouse fire that killed six city firefighters, was killed.

The death of Jon Davies, a 43-year-old Fire Department veteran who was to be married New Year’s Eve, devastated his colleagues and stirred painful memories of the December 1999 fire, when firefighters also searched a burning building for people they believed were inside.


Fire officials choked back emotion when recalling Davies, and Mayor Joseph C. O’Brien said that the city “knew such tragedies all too well.’’

“December has been a cruel month for the Worcester Fire Department,’’ said Timothy P. Murray, the state’s lieutenant governor and a former Worcester mayor.

Davies’s partner, Brian Carroll, was seriously injured in the collapse but is expected to recover.

After a daylong search through charred debris, the missing tenant was unaccounted for. Officials said it is possible that the occupant was not at home at the time of the fire.

Crews were ordered from the burning building shortly before the collapse, but the two men could not escape in time, authorities said.

Michael O’Brien, the city manager, said that the Arlington Street house was the subject of “numerous complaints’’ and that police had been called there 30 times since 2008. Since the formerly vacant property became occupied in May 2010, eight inspections found 21 sanitary code violations, city officials said.


Another inspection and a hearing in housing court were scheduled for this month.

According to authorities, the owner of the building, Jean Mui, purchased the property from a bank in 2008. She could not be reached yesterday evening.

A spokeswoman for the Red Cross said the agency had responded to two previous fires on Arlington Street. The previous fires were apparently started by burglars who broke into vacant buildings to steal copper piping, neighbors said.

Officials said they had not determined what caused yesterday’s fire or whether it had been intentionally set. The scope of the damage was expected to slow the work of investigators.

“This is a wide-open investigation at this time,’’ said Stephen Coan the state’s fire marshal. He asked that anyone with photos or eyewitness accounts of the fire in its early stages contact investigators.

Worcester’s fire chief, Gerard Dio, said the fire started in the back of the building and quickly spread.

“The fire took off pretty good,’’ he said. “It was extremely windy. We don’t know if there were any accelerants involved.’’

Before yesterday, the last firefighter in Massachusetts to die in the line of duty was Tim Oliveira, a Salisbury firefighter who was working on a department vehicle in July when it fell off its stands and onto his chest.


The Worcester fire broke out shortly after 4 a.m., sending residents running into the street.

“We saw a huge wall of fire,’’ said Fran Hollins, whose daughter woke him with panicked shouts. “The house looked like it was completely in flames.’’

Neighbor Bruce Matulonis woke up to see the entire roof “lit up like a candle.’’

As he watched from his window, he initially thought he could not see the back of the house through the smoke and darkness. Then he realized it was gone.

After the collapse, firefighters began a frantic rescue effort, neighbors said, punching a hole into the brick foundation to gain access to the basement.

Catrina Caseday, who lives across the street, said she awoke to see the building enveloped in flames. She later saw firefighters carry stretchers from the building.

“You could see the way that they were carrying the stretchers out that something was wrong,’’ she said. “It was heartbreaking.’’

Officials said they were able to communicate with Carroll during the hourlong search, but not with Davies. The two longtime partners were near each other when the structure gave way.

“They were almost on top of each other, the two of them together,’’ Dio said.

The chief said he had spoken with Carroll at the hospital and said he is expected to make a full recovery.

“He seemed in good spirits,’’ Dio said.

Davies had two sons in the military, one of whom is serving in Afghanistan, fire officials said. Both were notified yesterday and were returning to Massachusetts.


In a statement, his family expressed gratitude to fire officials for their support and requested privacy during their mourning.

City officials praised the men for their response.

“Both these men are brave, selfless individuals,’’ Michael O’Brien said.

At an afternoon press conference, Firefighter John Dwyer was extending his condolences when fire engines rolled out of the station, sirens blaring as if in somber tribute.

“We’re here to support each other,’’ he said as the trucks sped off, “as we always have.’’

John R. Ellement and Glen Johnson of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jaime Lutz contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com; Ballou at bballou@globe.com.