The Wire @ WPI Online
VOLUME 13, NO. 2     NOVEMBER 2000

Worcester still mourning its everyday heroes


Firefighters march under an oversize American flag outside the Centrum.

Editor's Note: It has been nearly a year since the evening of Dec. 3, 1999, when the worst firefighting disaster in the United States in two decades claimed the lives of Paul Brotherton, Timothy Jackson, Jeremiah Lucey, James Lyons III, Joseph McGuirk and Thomas Spencer in the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building. But, despite the passage of time, the memories of the fire and its aftermath remain strong. Perhaps most powerful among those remembrances are the images of a city -- and a nation -- in mourning. Six days after the fire began, Worcester schools, municipal offices and many businesses closed as nearly 50,000 mourners streamed into the city in a show of support for the men of Ladder 2, Rescue 1 and Engine 3 who entered the burning building to rescue people they believed were trapped inside.

In the paragraphs below and in the accompanying story, President Edward Alton Parrish, Center for Firesafety Studies Director David Lucht, Administrator of Applied Music Douglas Weeks, Worcester Fire Department Chaplain Peter Scanlon and others share their memories of the fire and the memorial service, and discuss the long-range impact of the inferno.

Brilliant sunshine glinted off badges and tear-stained faces and cast shadows that doubled the ranks of the firefighters who came from around the world to march in somber silence along the 1.5-mile route from the Grove Street Fire Station to Worcester's Centrum Centre.

Inside the Centrum, President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, Gov. Paul Cellucci, Rep. James McGovern, and Worcester Mayor Raymond Mariano joined 13,000 firefighters and 2,000 family members, friends and dignitaries in tribute and in prayer in memory of the six "everyday heroes" whose photographs graced the stage. Outside, an equal number of mourners watched the ceremony on large-screen TVs. Five minutes away, a score of firefighters labored to retrieve the bodies of the four men still buried in the rubble.

"The service was the most moving and emotional event I have ever attended," says Parrish (the only university president invited to the service), who represented the members of the Colleges of Worcester Consortium (COWC). "I was seated with about 400 civilian guests not far from the left section of the Centrum stage. After the families were escorted to their seats, the Worcester and Boston Fire Gaelic brigades played bagpipes as the firefighters filed in -- forming an ocean of blue and white dress uniforms as far as the eye could see. The atmosphere was surreal at times, particularly when Amazing Grace was alternately played by the bagpipers and performed by the Worcester County Ecumenical Chorus and Ensemble, in which Doug Weeks played. The scene will be indelibly etched in my mind."

"Participating in the memorial service, which recognized the terrible tragedy for the families of the firefighters, was an intensely moving experience for all involved," says Weeks, who was a member of the planning committee for the service, conducted the orchestra for the prelude music, and performed throughout the two-hour program. "I hope that the music performed that day, which included Samuel Barber's moving Adagio for Strings (also played at President's Kennedy's funeral), helped provide some catharsis for the families and the community."

"For me, these deaths underscore the word tragedy in many ways," says Lucht, who led the establishment of the nation's first graduate program in fire protection engineering at WPI in 1979 (see WPI Journal, Summer 1999). "The horrible loss of these dedicated public servants is part of a complex equation driven not only by the theories of fire combustion, physics and chemistry, but by the larger picture that created the circumstance: economic decline evidenced by the long-abandoned warehouse, homelessness and poverty."

About 400 WPI students have completed projects or graduate work in cooperation with the Worcester Fire Department. "This tragedy reminds me that WPI is in the right place in its bedrock philosophy of higher education," says Lucht. "By design, our students and faculty are at the intersection of theory and practice -- at the convergence of technology and the larger social issues."

"In my childhood, fires were nightmares," says Dana Haagensen "99 (M.S. F.P.E.), an associate fire protection engineer for the National Fire Protection Association and a call firefighter for the Westborough (Mass.) Fire Department. "On Dec. 3, those nightmares became reality for the Worcester Fire Department and its members' families.

"The fire leaves me to wonder, 'Should fire protection design place more importance on the safety of those who answer the alarm?' I believe that fire protection engineers can place more importance by remembering to include fire department response in any fire protection design. Fostering relationships between fire departments and corporate clients will increase our ability to protect life and property. And we must also encourage the implementation of safety features such as sprinkler systems, smoke alarms and escape plans in homes and businesses to save lives and to make firefighters' jobs safer."

"I hope that this fire reminds all of us that we are here to help our students and each other make a difference in the world," says Lucht, "and that our particular brand of project-oriented education is a tremendously effective strategy to achieve this goal. Our dedication to this purpose can serve to honor these six men who died in the line of duty."

During the service, Frank P. Raffa, president of Local 1009 of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) summed up the feelings of the mourners when he quoted a sign he saw on the way to the memorial. "Most cities have one hero. Worcester was blessed with six."

Planning is under way in the city for a memorial to the firefighters, whose names have been added to the marble wall of honor at the IAFF's Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial in Colorado Springs, Colo. Last December, WPI joined with several other COWC members in offering scholarships to the 17 children left fatherless by the tragedy.

Chaplain consoles his "family"


Sen. Edward M. Kennedy addresses the audience at the memorial for the fallen fire fighters. Seated behind the senator are, from left, Bernard Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston, the Rev. David Lindsey, a Baptist minister and former Worcester Fire Department chaplain, Albert Whitehead, president of the International Firefighters Union, Fr. Peter Scanlon, President Clinton, and the Most Rev. George Reuger, auxiliary bishop of Worcester.

Family has always been important to the Rev. Peter J. Scanlon. WPI's Catholic chaplain grew up on Providence Street on Worcester's Vernon Hill, where parents, children and grandchildren often lived in the same three-decker, and aunts, uncles and cousins were as near as the house next door. The close-knit, ethnically diverse neighborhood expanded the meaning of family. "It didn't matter what your name was or whether you went to church or synagogue," recalls Fr. Scanlon. "Everyone helped everyone else. We cheered for each other and cried together. The kids I hung out with are still my friends."

On Dec. 3, 1999, Fr. Scanlon lost six members of his extended family in the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse fire. The Worcester Fire Department's Catholic chaplain since 1961, he'd known the men since they'd begun their careers with the department. His connection to Joseph McGuirk was especially strong -- it began during his days as associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Church, where the McGuirk family worshipped.

"Many of the city's firefighters are sons, brothers or cousins of men who've served in the WFD for decades," he says. "When you get to know them, you also get to know their families, and when you live and work in Worcester almost all your life, as I have, you feel an even closer bond because of your shared history."

About two dozen clergy from the 84-member Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains came to Worcester to join Fr. Scanlon in comforting colleagues, relatives and friends of the deceased firefighters. An ecumenical group of volunteers, the corps was established in October 1999 with the support of State Fire Marshall Stephen D. Coan, who recognized the need for a spiritual component in the midst of such tragedies. Each chaplain was assigned to a firefighter who knew a particular family and who now serve as a permanent liaison between the chaplain and that family. The others were available all day, every day, at the scene or at nearby Mount Carmel Church. All stayed until the body of the last firefighter was recovered on Dec. 11.

Fr. Scanlon was also involved in the Dec. 9 memorial service that drew 15,000 to Worcester's Centrum Centre, including President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Senators Kennedy and Kerry, and Gov. Cellucci. "In the planning sessions, the families and I emphasized to the International Association of Fire Fighters (which organized the event) that we wanted the service to be religious, not political, in character," he says. "The President picked up on that when he compared the fallen firefighters to the Prophet Isaiah, whose answer to God's question, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' was, ‘Here am I. Send me.' He moved everyone when he continued, ‘When the question again rang from the smoking skies last week, [the six firefighters] also answered with a single voice, ‘Here am I. Send me.'"

T. Andrew Reardon, special assistant to the state fire marshal, characterized Fr. Scanlon in a newspaper story as "a battle-hardened veteran." Fr. Scanlon says the experience he has gained in nearly 43 years in the priesthood and 39 years as fire department chaplain did not make those days less exhausting or sorrowful, but his devotion to his work never wavered.

"I was there as a friend of the family," he explains. "As a priest in the midst of overwhelming grief, I try to instill the church's vision of death as a resurrection and to convey that in our view, there is still much to be thankful for. My greatest hope is that the people I counsel will see in me the God of faith, hope and love, and that that vision will sustain and comfort them."

He chose not to speak at the memorial service. "I was not sure I could have handled that moment," he says. While he acknowledges that it was an honor to stand beside and even chat with the President, he says it was difficult and heart-rending to watch the mothers trying to console their children -- hugging them as they all stared at the pictures of these men. "I had tears in my eyes as I recalled the part these firefighters had played in my life -- from serving my Masses to reading the names of their deceased comrades at our annual Firefighters Mass."

Fr. Scanlon attended St. John's High School and the College of the Holy Cross before entering St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, Md. He was ordained in St. Paul's Cathedral in Worcester on May 30, 1957. Once described by a reporter as "Worcester's busiest priest," he has served parishes in Southbridge, Shrewsbury, Rutland and Worcester. In 1961 he was assigned to WPI as campus minister and also became the WFD's Catholic chaplain. In 1967, he assumed the full-time post of campus minister at WPI and Becker College; one year later he was named diocesan director of the Newman Apostolate and vicar of all college campus communities in the diocese.

Several years ago, a WPI writer said of Fr. Scanlon, "To Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to students, faculty and administrators, he has endeared himself as a counselor in time of trial, a comforter in sorrow, and a good friend always." To that one could add that this longtime priest's wise and gentle counsel comes from his love for family -- and to Peter Scanlon, everyone is family.


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Last modified: Dec 12, 2000, 16:16 EST