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Worcester firefighter leaves behind wife and three children; had planned trip to Disney

Worcester Fire Lieutenant Jason Menard, who died heroically early Wednesday while battling a four-alarm blaze in the city, was “a wonderful person” as well as a “terrific father and husband,” his union president said.

“He had a true passion for firefighting,” said Michael Papagni, president of Local 1009, the union for city firefighters, in a brief phone interview Wednesday. “He was always a joy to have in the firehouse and to be around. He was a “genuine person” as well as a “nice guy.”

Papagni said the married father of three “always talked about his family. He loved his family more than anything in the world. He found great joy in spending time with them and loved his wife and his children very much.”

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During an earlier news conference, Papagni told reporters that Menard had planned to take a Disney trip Wednesday with his family.

“They are now instead planning a hero’s sendoff,” Papagni said during the briefing. “We will send off Jason as he deserved and as he earned.”

A review of Menard’s social media presence shows he and relatives were proud of his service and keenly aware of the dangers he faced on a daily basis.

Menard and his wife both attended Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, and in August, he posted a photo on his Facebook page of the pair smiling together. The photo prompted one relative to comment, “awesome couple and wonderful parents.”

Last year, Menard and his spouse had a touching, humorous exchange on Facebook after he posted a photo from his promotion ceremony that depicted the couple and their son as Menard’s badge was pinned to his uniform.

“Can hardly tell how nervous I was,” Tina Menard wrote.

Her husband replied, “Yeah I [thought] Josh was gonna stab me with my badge and I’d be bleeding at my promotion ceremony. Glad everything worked out favorably and no gauze was needed.”

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“[W]ell we had a couple of close calls during practice,” Tina Menard wrote.

Cheryl Pike Kelly, Jason Menard’s mother, also commented on the photo.

“Such a special moment and well deserved for all of your hard work, perseverance, sacrifice and a wife and family to stand by you so you could reach your goal,” Kelly wrote. “SO proud is an understatement . . . great job, LT!”

And on Dec. 8 of last year, Jason Menard posted a tribute marking the seventh anniversary of the line-of-duty death of Worcester Firefighter Jon Davies.

Previously, Kelly had commented on another photo Menard posted of himself on the job.

“LOVE this picture of my firefighter son SO much!!!” Kelly wrote. “Stay safe and God be with you always!”

Menard and his family lived in a close-knit cul-de-sac in Worcester. “He was always lending a hand. You didn’t even have to ask,” said longtime neighbor Debbie Henricksen, whose family would come back from vacation to a mowed lawn courtesy of Menard. She described him as “a wonderful, wonderful man” and said the city was abuzz today with news that the Fire Department had suffered another tragic blow.

“And just hours later, there’s another fire on the other end of the city,” she said in reference to a three-alarm fire midday Wednesday at a pet supply store. “It’s just crazy. It’s just too much.”

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Julie Peralta, an emergency dispatcher in Worcester, brought her 3-year-old son Tony to the fire station on McKeon Road on Wednesday to lay a flower bouquet and say thank you. They placed the bouquet with a smattering of others in front of the station, and Peralta leaned into her son’s ear.

“We said ‘thank you very much for being so brave,’” Peralta said. “They need to learn how important these people are to us. They’re our heroes.”

Peralta said she went to middle school with Menard, and would listen for him on the radio as she dispatched calls.

“He’s the greatest guy, the nicest guy. His family was everything, from what I can tell,” she said.

Nine Worcester firefighters have died in the line of duty since 1999. Menard’s death comes as the city prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of the Cold Storage warehouse fire that cost six firefighters their lives. He is the third line-of duty death in Worcester since then. In 2011 and again in 2018, two other firefighters lost their lives in blazes that took place in the month of December.

“It’s too often, and so close to all the other ones,” Peralta said. “It’s not something you want to go through, and unfortunately, we do, a lot around here.”

Long before he joined the Fire Department, Menard played offensive line for his high school football team, according to a 1997 story in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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“The offensive line of Tim Hedge, John Saphirak, Pat McGoldrick, Ernest Watts, Jason Menard and tight end John Fallon did a great job blocking,” the article said, noting that Menard’s team had defeated St. Peter-Marian at “snow-covered Foley Stadium.”

Menard was a nine-year veteran of the Worcester Fire Department, said Rich MacKinnon Jr., president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, in a brief letter to members that the labor group posted to Twitter on Wednesday.

“The Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts regret to announce the Line of Duty Death (LODD) of Lieutenant Jason Menard, Worcester [Local] 1009,” MacKinnon wrote. “Jason was a 9-year veteran of the Worcester Fire Department, assigned to Ladder 5, Group 2. Please keep the Menard Family and Local 1009 in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time. Funeral services and arrangements will follow.”

Another labor group based in Washington, D.C., the International Association of Fire Fighters, paid tribute to Menard in a statement.

“Brother Jason Menard’s tenacity and dedication to service above self was evident last night as he made the ultimate sacrifice while attempting to rescue his fellow fire fighters,” said Harold Schaitberger, the association’s general president. “Our hearts break for his young family and for those of his brothers and sisters at the Worcester Fire Department. Brother Menard represents the very best of the IAFF and fire fighters nationwide.”

Said Edward Kelly, the IAFF’s general secretary-treasurer, “Lt. Menard’s actions last night – first leading his crew of Ladder 5 into an inferno to search for a baby and then courageously rescuing one fire fighter and continuing to rescue a second trapped fire fighter – are the most heroic I’ve heard in my 25 years of firefighting.”

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Jay Colbert, third district vice president of the IAFF, called Menard a “young, vibrant leader” and said his death is “a monumental tragedy, not just for his family but for the family of fire fighters in Worcester and across New England and the nation. Brother Menard will be remembered as a hero for his actions and honored for his selfless sacrifice.”

Also Wednesday, a number current and former elected officials took to social media to pay tribute to Menard, including former Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray, who also served as mayor of Worcester.

“The brutal cold has once again exacted a cruel toll on the brave men and women of the Worcester Fire Department while they protect the city and it’s residents,” Murray wrote. “Keep the WFD and Menard family in your prayers.”

Murray’s words were echoed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston.

“Our hearts are with the @CityofWorcester and the @WorcesterFD who lost Jason Menard last night in an overnight fire,” Walsh tweeted. “Jason leaves behind a family who loved him deeply, and Boston will remember his sacrifice and service to protect others.”

Worcester City Councilor-at-Large Kathleen M. Toomey was also shaken by the news.

“It is incomprehensible that the City of WORCESTER Fire Department has lost Lt. Jason Menard,” Toomey wrote on Facebook. “Please pray for Jay’s family and his Firefighter and City Family. He was a hero, saving the lives of other firefighters. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)’ God bless you and keep you in the palm of his hand.”

Governor Charlie Baker lamented Menard’s death, as well.

“This morning, I’m deeply saddened to learn of the tragic passing of Worcester Fire Lt. Jason Menard, who lost his life battling last night’s fire on Stockholm Street, and the injury of 3 other brave firefighters,” Baker tweeted.

The governor said “Lt. Menard was not only a dedicated member of @WorcesterFD, but a husband and father of three. Our hearts break for his family, loved ones and the entire community.”

And Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, who visited with Worcester officials Wednesday, described Menard as “a hero to his last breath, savings civilians and a fellow brother in the line of duty.”


Jeremiah Manion and Matt Stout of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.