WORCESTER — It was an ordinary winter night, until it wasn’t.
On the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, teenagers from the tight-knit Indian Hill neighborhood gathered to talk and play cards in a parents-free zone: a hand-built cabin in the woods, where boys came and went through idle evening hours over holiday break.
Then everything changed in an instant, as a splash of gasoline into a makeshift stove caused a flash fire that quickly engulfed the wooden structure.
Five made it out alive.
Five others didn’t.
A half-century later, survivors gathered Saturday at St. George Catholic Church, where they had worshiped growing up, alongside relatives of those who perished and others from the old neighborhood they loved. Later that evening, many moved on to the Wachusett Country Club in West Boylston to reminisce about the lives lost in the tragic Indian Hill fire of Dec. 29, 1968.
Warren Briggs, Timothy Donohue Jr., and Ronald Vysniauskas, all 17, died on that cold night, along with Michael Foley and John Quinlivan, both 16.
Briggs’s brother, Roy F. Briggs, is a deacon at Blessed Sacrament Church in Worcester and delivered Saturday’s homily. Briggs said he was mopping floors at a community college that night when his mother called.
“Roy, you have to come home,” she told him. “Your brother Warren has died.”
The families of those lost had to continue with a hole in their homes, Briggs said.
“But healing began,” he said. “Our healing began as our lives went on.”
Still, the tragedy remains a wound for a community that has lost some of its most beloved sons to flames. Six Worcester firefighters perished in the 1999 Cold Storage Warehouse fire, among the deadliest incidents for Massachusetts firefighters. And just three weeks ago, Worcester firefighter Christopher Roy died battling a blaze on Lowell Street.
On Saturday afternoon, members of Michael Foley’s family gathered at a memorial to the teens inside Indian Hill Park. Brian Foley, then 12, recalled the night his big brother didn’t come back.
“We knew something was going on, but we just didn’t know what happened until my parents got home,” he said. “It was pretty traumatic — first big traumatic thing in my life.”
Brian Foley grew up to be a firefighter, working to see that other families weren’t visited by such loss.
“Something came out of it,” he said of the tragedy.
Eileen Foley, then 10, said the tragedy built stronger bonds within her family and among the community and the young men who survived: Phil Jakubosky; Bob Richardson; Ray Slater; Harry Vysniauskas, younger brother of Ronald; and Richard Halvorsen, who also grew up to become a firefighter. Halvorsen died in 2004.
“It’s humbling that they’re still a good group of people, and, I think, us as siblings . . . we’re closer because of it, I believe,” she said.
The memory of that night is vivid a half-century later for Harry Vysniauskas, who was then 15.
“Somebody threw gas in the fire,” he said in an interview. “It was in a larger container, and [he] didn’t close the top of the container properly, or it didn’t close, and it followed the vapors across the room.”
Vysniauskas quickly became drowsy.
“I felt like sleeping because all of the oxygen was pulled out of the air,” he said.
But he caught himself and regained enough composure to escape.
“I had helped build the place, so I knew the weak spots,” he said.
Kicking through a pine board — teens had built the structure of 1-by-6-inch planks that were salvaged, or nicked from a local lumber yard — Vysniauskas made it outside to safety.
In years to come, their father would blame Harry for Ronald’s death, “because I bought the gasoline,” he said.
But in his view, he said, there is no point in assigning guilt.
“You can’t blame someone for lighting a match or buying gas,” he said.
On that fateful night, Bob Richardson, then 20, was a first-time visitor to the cabin, which he said was about 12 feet by 14 feet. He was in its second-floor attic, a space that was too low to stand up.
“I couldn’t even tell you how I got up there that night, but once the fire started, my memory’s pretty clear,” he said in an interview.
Seeking escape, Richardson descended into the inferno, but at first he saw no way out.
“There were so many flames, I didn’t even see a person,” he said.
Richardson threw a table toward the cabin’s door, which opened only inward and was blocking escape. The table knocked over the makeshift stove, which revealed to Richardson the cabin’s only window.
“I got in the window and just completely forgot about the fire,” even though his feet were in flames, he recalled, because the night outside was so cold.
“It was just a miracle I got out of there,” Richardson said.
The experience gave Richardson a new direction.
“I remember thinking to myself afterwards . . . that my life could have ended and it wouldn’t really have meant anything to anybody,” he said.
Previously unsure of his career plans, he decided to study computers and went on to work in technology, eventually becoming a telecommunications manager for TJX Cos., before his retirement.
“It did . . . make me focus on, ‘What are you going to do with yourself?’ ” he said.
The fire also changed Vysniauskas. He developed the habit of always finding the emergency exits of any space he enters, he said, and he has risked his safety to save the lives of others — twice pulling drowning swimmers from the water.
“Going through something like that as a kid, you kind of learn something from the experience,” he said. “Always be ready.”