Paul A. Brotherton
Timothy P. Jackson
Jeremiah M. Lucey
James F. Lyons, III
Joseph T. McGuirk
Thomas E. Spencer
On the evening of
December 3, 1999, a fire erupted in the abandoned
Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse building located in
Worcester, Massachusetts. A passerby on the adjacent elevated
I-290 highway reported by phone that smoke was showing from the
roof of the building. At 1813 hours Box 1438 was struck and a
1st alarm assignment was dispatched to the scene. By the time
the fire was brought under control the next day, five alarms
would be struck, off-duty personnel would be recalled, mutual
aid companies would respond from surrounding towns, and the
building would tragically claim the lives of six of Worcester
Fire Department's bravest.
The original structure had been built in 1906 and occupied
until 1988 when at that time, the cold storage business using
the building moved out. The building fell victim to vandalism
and was used by the homeless after the building was closed down
in 1989. By December 1999, a homeless couple were intermittently
using the 2nd floor office area of the abandoned building for
According to statements given by the homeless couple to
investigators, the woman had recently moved out but returned on
the evening of December 3rd to gather some belongings. Her
boyfriend was there and a shoving match ensued which resulted in
a lit candle being knocked-off a milk crate and into a pile of
clothes igniting them. The couple attempted to extinguish the
fire but were unsuccessful as the fire began to grow, fueled by
other combustible materials in the room. The couple then exited
the building and never reported the fire to anyone. To the
investigators best guess, the fire could have been burning for
as much as one hour and forty-five minutes before smoke was
first spotted coming from the roof.
Within minutes of the dispatch, the first arriving unit
Engine 1 reported "heavy smoke showing." As a team from Engine 1
prepared to enter the building to search for the fire, the first
of many difficulties presented itself. The square brick building
had almost no windows or discerning features from the outside,
making an external size-up of the building impossible. Also, the
very limited amount of windows left virtually no emergency
egress points should they be needed. Crews went to work
establishing a water supply, preparing to attack the fire, and
to search the many floors for access, orientation, and the fire.
the "A" and "B" sides at 1825 hours.
Car 3 arrived on-scene minutes later, established command,
and immediately requested a second alarm. Almost simultaneously
at 1820 hours, two crews radio command and report back that they
had found the fire. Engine 13 reported that they have fire in
the elevator shaft on the 2nd and 3rd floors. This shaft was
venting the smoke scene from the highway. Ladder 1 then radioed
that they had found a "room full of fire" in the second floor
office area. With the fire located, hose lines were advanced to
battle the flames.
At 1824 hours, command is informed that the owner of the
dinner next door has reported that two people may be inside the
building. Several minutes later, Rescue 1's Lieutenant is asked
if he has seen the two people reported to be living in the
building. He replies the second and third floor search was
negative and they were moving up to the fourth. Rescue is also
asked about any fire extension to the third floor which he
replies there is smoke but no fire.
By now, several hand lines had been advanced to the fire on
the second floor and suppression efforts were ongoing. Reports
were that the heat was intense but conditions were still
tenable. Also noted was that the smoke throughout the building
was light enough to still allow firefighters to see.
hours the smoke venting from the roof had noticeably
At 1840 hours the third alarm was struck. Six minutes later
Engine 12 orders all firefighters operating on the 2nd floor to
get back to the staircase as the conditions had deteriorated
badly. Personnel operating in the area would later report that
the conditions went from moderate to completely untenable in a
matter of only two minutes.
Immediately after Engine 12's transmission, a team from
Rescue 1 started to call for help. They had been working down
from the roof and had become lost. A search was initiated
although there was much confusion as to what floor they are
actually on. The team further desperately states that they are
out of air.
The Captain from Engine 1 repeats an evacuation order for
the 2nd floor as conditions continue to quickly worsen. The
smoke and heat are banking down and fire is starting to run
horizontal across the ceiling.
A fourth alarm is struck at 1852 hours. The lost firefighters
are told to activate their PASS alarms (personal alarm safety
systems) at 1855 and they reply "they are activated". This was
their last radio transmission.
The Interior Operations Officer started to assign
newly-arrived companies to fire suppression and search and
rescue duties. The driver from Engine 3 had been left behind to
put on his turnout gear and SCBA (self-contained breathing
apparatus) with another firefighter. As the other firefighters
from Engine 3 entered the ground floor they were instructed to
go get spare SCBA bottles before going upstairs to search. As
they exitted via another way from what they entered, Ladder 2's
crew entered and was assigned to go search the 5th floor. It is
believed that the remaining two firefighters from Engine 3
entered the building and didn't see their crew, and then
attached themselves to Ladder 2.
Suppression crews continued to attack the fire from another
stairwell. Even with three hand lines flowing, they were making
no progress. In addition, wires were beginning to fall from the
ceiling and entangle the crews.
At 1903 hours the search team consisting of Ladder 2/Engine 3
radios Command and reports that they are continuing to search
the 5th floor for the down firefighters. Even though it is
believed they are in the vicinity of Rescue 1's team, no one
ever reports hearing a PASS alarm. A few minutes later the
Ladder 2 Lieutenant from the combined team requests assistance
in finding the stairwell as conditions were degrading rapidly.
The other team from Engine 3 who had already exited the building
hears the request and radios Command that they will proceed to
the 5th floor and lead the Ladder 2/Engine 3 team out.
hours, flames are reported venting from the roof.
This photograph was taken at 2030 hours.
At 1915 hours, Car 2 who had assumed Operations, ordered all
crews to cease using the saws in order to lower the noise in an
attempt to help the team on the 5th floor identify the direction
of the stairwell. Later that minute, the Lieutenant from Ladder
2 radios "Ladder 2 to Command were done . . .", and this was
their final transmission. By 1918 hours the team from Engine 3
had reached the 5th floor stairwell door and listened and yelled
for the team from Ladder 2/Engine 3. No one ever answered.
By 1945 hours, a mutual aid company from Millbury had arrived
with their thermal imagining camera and a Worcester crew was
assigned to lead them up for a search of the 5th floor. By now,
lifelines tied to the to the stairwell were in mandatory use.
The team was unable to go past the 3rd floor in the stairwell
because of the heat. In addition, the thermal imagining camera
stop working. It is believed that a thermal overload of the
from the I-270 highway.
The time is now 1951 hours. Several loud booms are heard
which shake the building and the fire is now venting through the
roof forty feet into the night sky. Large cracks in the
buildings exterior brick walls are showing and concern is
growing about a collapse. At 1958 hours the evacuation order is
issued and all personnel are removed from the building.
Apparatus were repositioned out of the collapse zone and to
prepare for an extended defensive operation. The exterior attack
continued for the next twenty hours.
A crane was brought in to remove the remains of the building.
The exterior brick wall needed to be demolished for both safety
and ease of operations, as some floors had collapsed down onto
each other. Fire crews from all over New England came into
Worcester to help painstakingly and respectfully sift through
the ruins to recover their fallen brothers, and to cover
stations so Worcester firefighters could be available to work at
procession moves beneath an American flag hung from
two Worcester aerials.
The tragedy that unfolded that night not only affected
Worcester, Massachusetts, but was felt by the entire Nation and
even beyond. On
December 9, 1999,
some 30,000 firefighters from all over the country and as far
away as Canada, Australia and Ireland came to lend their support
and pay their respects at a memorial service held for the six
fallen firefighters. Some of the dignitaries who attended were
President Bill Clinton, Vice-President Al Gore, and
Massachusetts Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, among many
Firefighters march through the streets of Worcester.
A three-mile procession of firefighters and dignitaries
marched to the Worcester Centrum for the service. An estimated
10,000 civilians lined the parade route to pay their respects.
Firefighters in the procession continued to arrive at the
Centrum well after it's 15,000 seats had been filled and the
service started. Some firefighters who couldn't get in marched
over to the smoldering shell of the Worcester Cold Storage
building to pay their respects there.
Many of the 500 member
Worcester Fire Department did not attend the memorial service,
but instead chose to remain at the site and search for their
missing brothers. It took eight days to recover all six
firefighters, and this tragedy was the worst loss of life from a
building fire in America for more than 20 years.
It is no secret to the fire service that abandoned buildings
pose a serious hazard to firefighters operating in them. It's
hard to imagine that any building could be worse than the
Worcester Cold Storage building. For starters, the sprinkler
system was inoperable due to abandonment and there was no
The building's construction and layout was a nightmare. The
original section was built in 1906 and featured a single
stairwell that reached all the way to the roof. Another section
was added in 1912. Access to the new section was extremely
limited. The two stairwells in the new section only went to the
second and third floors. To reach the upper levels of the new
section on foot, you had to climb the stairwell in the original
section and cross over to the new section. There were elevators
but they were inoperable at the time of the fire. Doorways
between the the original and newer section varied in number and
location on each level. Floor plans also varied between floors.
For the teams working above the third floor, there was only
the stairwell in the original building to reach the ground or
roof by because there were no windows. In addition, it was easy
to become disoriented in the maze of refrigerated rooms. It is
estimated that the crew from Rescue 1 who originally became lost
was almost about as far from the stairwell on the 5th floor as
they could be. On each floor of the building there was over
17,000 square feet of floor space to become lost in.
The building had undergone much renovation during it's
lifetime. Many different types of insulation were used and added
over the years. Unfortunately all of them had poor fire
characteristics. It was the nature of these insulations that
resisted extinguishment and caused rapid growth, high heat and
large volumes of smoke.
affixed to the back of a helmet, in honor of those
who perished in the Worcester Cold Storage and
Warehouse fire on December 3, 1999.
The homeless couple inhabiting the building at the time of
the fire were quickly identified, arrested, and charged with
involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of the six firefighters.
The court however ruled that their actions did not meet the
standard of "wanton and reckless" conduct, as they were not
Massachusetts law to report the fire. The indictments were
An appeals court would later reinstate the charges. In the end a
plea bargain was reached where both individuals would serve five
years probation and have the charges dropped if they were to
remain out of trouble. While this decision obviously inspired
mixed feelings from the families and fellow firefighters of the
fallen, and in the community and others within the fire service,
the district attorney cited that because of both defendant's
limited mental capacity, it was "just about impossible to try
the Line of Duty:
Tragedy in Worcester
Worcester Telegram & Gazette:
Memorial information at
NIOSH report on
Worcester Cold Storage fire in
Department Board of Inquiry Report: Worcester Cold Storage and
Warehouse Fire in
United States Fire Administration Technical Report Series:
Abandoned Cold-Storage Warehouse Multi-Firefighter Fatality Fire