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Remembering — and honoring — Worcester’s six fallen firefighters, 20 years later

Firefighters observed a moment of silence at 6:14 pm. on Dec. 10, 1999, one week after the fatal warehouse fire that cost six lives. Suzanne Kreiter

It was the evening of Dec. 3, 1999, about two hours after the sun set on the city of Worcester, when an off-duty police officer noticed smoke coming from the top of a building on Franklin Street.

Within minutes, firefighters were on their way.

Little did they know, when they responded to this call, their lives would be changed forever.

The Worcester Fire Department, and the city as a whole, would never be the same again.

The fire that started inside Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. turned into a deadly blaze that claimed the lives of six firefighters: Timothy P. Jackson, 51; Joseph T. McGuirk, 38; James F. “Jay” Lyons III, 34; Thomas E. Spencer, 42; Paul A. Brotherton, 41; and Jeremiah M. Lucey, 38.

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Members of the Worcester Fire Department and representatives from fire departments across the country stood at attention during a ceremony on the 20th anniversary of the 1999 fire at the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. that claimed the lives of six Worcester firefighters.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Today, several of their children — Spencer’s son Danny, Lucey’s son Jeremiah, and five of Brotherton’s sons — serve in the Worcester Fire Department.

In the two decades since the tragic warehouse fire, the city has continued to grieve for their fathers and the rest of the “Worcester Six,” and on Tuesday evening, city and state officials honored them with a memorial service on the 20th anniversary of the fire.

At the ceremony, held at the Franklin Street fire station, which is the site of the former warehouse, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito hailed “this amazing ability of this community to stick together, to stand together, and to show the respect and love to the Worcester Six.”

“It’s our responsibility to always, always be grateful, be grateful to the Worcester Six, to their sons who continue to serve and protect this city, and to the many women and men who choose this line of work,” she said.

Jean Ollson, cousin, and Kathy Lyons, sister, of fallen Worcester firefighter Lieutenant James Lyons III during Tuesday’s ceremony on the 20th anniversary of the Worcester Cold Storage fire. Lyons was among the six firefighters who died in the blaze.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Worcester City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. told the crowd at the ceremony that being a firefighter in the city is “a proud identity, a noble identity.” He said it was “hard to put into words what losing the Worcester Six meant to our city at the time and the profound impact this loss has continued to have ever since.”

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“To lose one firefighter is a tragedy, to lose six firefighters [in] one night is almost unthinkable,” he said.

Worcester fire Chief Michael J. Lavoie recalled the 1999 fire as “by far the worst tragedy we’ve ever seen” and referred to the cold storage warehouse as “the building from hell.”

Lavoie gave a synopsis of the response to the fire: two homeless people were reported in the building; search and rescue was initiated; two firefighters became lost and were running out of air.

“Many of our firefighters then entered the building in a valiant effort to locate their brothers, some pushing it to the limit, within seconds of their own demise,” he said

Later, he added, “In the end, we lost six brothers.”

Actor and comedian Denis Leary, a Worcester native, spoke of honoring the firefighters’ “devotion to duty and the seven sons who have followed in their fathers’ footsteps to serve this community as Worcester firefighters.”

“That is the greatest tribute of all,” he said.

The fire affected Leary profoundly, as he had personal ties to two of the victims (Lucey was his cousin and Spencer was a childhood friend and high school classmate).

On Tuesday, Leary tweeted a photograph of Lucey on the job, wearing his firefighter helmet and gear.

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“My cousin Jerry Lucey in action for @WorcesterFD,” Leary wrote. “Back in the day #NeverForget #Worcester6 20 years ago today.”

Leary, who established The Leary Firefighters Foundation in 2000, also announced the release of a new minidocumentary series called “The Worcester 6: Heroes Remembered.”

The first episode of the five-part series premiered on the foundation’s website and social media channels Tuesday.

The memorial service came on the heels of the deaths of two other local firefighters. Worcester fire Lieutenant Jason Menard, 39, died while battling a four-alarm blaze in November, and Worcester firefighter Christopher Roy, 36, died after becoming trapped on the second floor while fighting a fire in an apartment building on Lowell Street last December.

In advance of Tuesday’s memorial ceremony, the Worcester Fire Department posted an online tribute to Brotherton, Jackson, Lucey, Lyons, McGuirk, and Spencer on Twitter.

A temporary pop-up exhibit about the Worcester Six is also on display at Union Station.

It will be open to the public, free of charge, Tuesday from 12 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m., and Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., according to the Worcester Fire Museum and Educational Center’s Facebook page.


Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.