The Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire began on December 3, 1999, in an abandoned building at 266 Franklin Street, Worcester, Massachusetts. The fire was started accidentally some time between 4:30–5:45pm by two homeless people who were squatting in the building and had knocked over a candle. They left the scene without reporting the fire. The 6-story building, previously used as a meat cold storage facility, had no windows above the ground floor and no fire detection or suppression systems. The fire, which started on the second story, burned undetected for 30–90 minutes.
The structure was located five blocks east of the Worcester central business district, near Union Station and adjacent to Interstate 290. An off-duty police officer first called in the fire at 6:13 pm after noticing grey/white smoke coming from the roof of the building. At around the same time an off-duty firefighter from neighbouring Auburn passed the building on I-290 and radioed his Fire Control to report smoke coming from the roof. He told them to inform the Fire Chief, "this is going to be a multiple-alarm fire."
The owner of a neighboring business informed a police officer at the scene that a homeless couple had been squatting in the building and firefighters initiated a search, believing they could still be trapped inside. Conditions inside the building deteriorated rapidly. Worcester Fire Department District Chief Michael McNamee said, "There was a light smoke condition in the upper levels of the building to the point we didn't even have our face pieces on. Within four seconds it went from that condition to the building being filled completely with black, hot, boiling smoke."
The layout of the building and the absence of windows left firefighters without a secondary escape route and prevented ladder and rescue operations. Six firefighters were still unaccounted for in the building when the interior floors collapsed to the second story level. They were the city's first firefighting deaths in 36 years.
The Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building was constructed in 1906 and covered an entire city block on Franklin Street. The original structure measured 88ft by 88ft, and stood 80ft high. The warehouse was built to store western dressed beef which was slaughtered in Chicago and could be shipped in refrigerated rail cars to the east at a lower cost than shipping livestock. The interior consisted of six storage levels and a basement. The warehouse was served by a rail siding to the rear, operated by the Boston and Albany Railroad.
To insulate the building, it was constructed with 18-inch thick brick walls and had no windows above the first floor, except in the stairwell. The interior walls were covered with layers of cork impregnated with tar, polystyrene foam and polyurethane to improve insulation. The insulating layers were up to 18-inches thick. Two elevator shafts ran alongside the stairwell. The first and second story floors were constructed of concrete, and those above were constructed of timber. In 1912 the building was extended on the west side. The extension almost doubled the floor space and included two further elevators serving all levels, a second stairwell which terminated at the 3rd floor, and some windows in an office space on the north-east corner of the 2nd floor.
Between 1906 and 1983 the building was owned by the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. In 1983 it was sold to Chicago Dressed Beef. It was purchased by CDB Realty Trust, controlled by Ding On "Tony" Kwan and his wife Shu May Kwan, in 1987. The building was abandoned by 1989 and remained vacant until its destruction. During this period it was frequently used by homeless persons, who built fires inside for warmth.
Reports that homeless people were possibly inside the engulfed warehouse caused fire-rescue personnel to search the six-story building. The searchers' task was made extremely difficult by the large size of the building's interior, the layout, which was a maze of corridors and meat lockers, many with identical flush-handle doors, and the highly flammable composition of its insulation. Nearly a century old, the interior walls had been progressively covered with various forms of insulating materials, including cork impregnated with tar, polystyrene foam, and polyurethane foam, to a thickness of 18 inches. Once ignited, the large amount of fuel, fed initially by the large volume of air in the building, became virtually inextinguishable.
The six-story building's exterior walls were constructed of approximately 18 inches of brick and mortar, with no windows above the second floor. The lack of available windows prevented firefighting personnel from making an accurate initial assessment of the fire. Initial breaching of lower-floor doors, combined with venting the building by smashing an elevator-shaft roof skylight, effectively turned the building into a huge chimney. With the fire rapidly accelerating out of control, rescue teams facing near-zero visibility became lost with available breathing air depleted. Despite repeated radio calls for help, along with activation of audible location alarms, six firefighters perished in the blaze. It took eight days to find and recover the remains of the six men.
A memorial service and procession for the firefighters were held in Worcester's Centrum Centre on December 9, 1999. The service was broadcast on several national news networks and was attended by President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator John Kerry (who flew non-stop from Burma, where he had been attending a diplomatic function. Also in the procession were firefighters from around the United States, Canada, and from Dublin, Ireland. The Boston Stock Exchange suspended business at 11:00am during the memorial and observed a minute's silence while a bell was rung in tribute on the trading floor.
Produced and Edited by Michael Bavaro
Actor and comedian Denis Leary's first cousin, Jerry Lucey, and his childhood friend and high school classmate, Lt. Tommy Spencer, were both victims of the fire. Denis established The Leary Firefighters Foundation in the spring of 2000. In October 2000 Leary held the first "Celebrity Hat Trick" fundraiser including a hockey game, a golf tournament and a dinner. The hockey game was played at Worcester Centrum between a "Hollywood" team, including Michael J. Fox, Kiefer Sutherland, Tim Robbins and Rick Moranis, and a Boston Bruins Alumni Team, coached by Bobby Orr and including Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk, Derek Sanderson and Cam Neely. The hockey game raised $350,000 and is now an annual event. The proceeds went to Worcester and central Massachusetts fire departments to fund equipment, technology, and training, and to the families of firefighters who died or were injured in the line of duty.
- USFA Investigation
- NIOSH Investigation
- Fireman's Memorial
- Remembering and Learning from the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse Fire Tragedy - Firefighter Nation
- The Perfect Fire - Esquire
- 15 years later: Worcester remembers loss of 6 firefighters - FireRescue1
- Leary Firefighters Foundation
- Worcester Firefighters 6k Race
- 2 sons of 'Worcester 6' to graduate from Mass. fire academy - Telegram.com
- Remembering under stress - Firehouse Table