Author(s): Matthew Foley. Published on November 1, 2019.

After Effect

In December 1999, a fire in an abandoned warehouse in Worcester, Massachusetts, killed six firefighters and sent a shock wave through the country's fire service. Twenty years later, the reverberations are still being felt.

BY MATTHEW FOLEY


Twenty years ago, when I was a kid growing up in Massachusetts, my parents would drive me to visit my grandparents in the nearby city of Worcester. It was only 45 minutes away, but it seemed like a different world. It was an old industrial town, an important 19th-century manufacturing hub, but it had endured decades of decline and was filled with empty and deteriorating buildings. I would stare out the car window at the faded shapes as we drove through the city. A few always got my attention, including a large brick structure that towered over the highway, the words “Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co.” painted across it. The building had been a local landmark for as long as most people could remember. My Dad referred to it simply as “the cold storage building.”

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December 3, 1999, was my mom’s birthday, and my dad and I had just left my grandparents’ house in our Ford Explorer to meet her for dinner at an Italian restaurant. I was only six, but I can still recall the smell of smoke as we drove down I-290 through the city. We finally saw the source—the cold storage building was on fire. As we drove past, just yards away on the highway, we could see flames erupting from the roof. The Worcester Fire Department (WFD) was there, though, and we assumed the situation would soon be under control. As the evening went on, we learned otherwise.

There had been a report of two homeless people possibly being trapped in the building, and firefighters had gone in to look for them. The fire intensified, and two firefighters became lost in the maze-like interior. Teams of firefighters began a search, and four more men became lost in the rapidly escalating fire. In the end, the fire gutted the building, and six Worcester firefighters were missing.

One of them was Joseph McGuirk, a longtime friend of my Dad’s. They were both from Worcester, but most of their time together had been up in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, where their families spent summers on the same street. They stayed in touch as they got married and started their own families. I was born in the summer of 1993, and the first call my parents made was to the McGuirks, asking them to walk up to my grandparents’ house and deliver the good news.

Late on the evening of the fire, after we’d driven home from Worcester, Dad got a call from his brother letting him know that Joe was missing. I remember him being very shaken up—he was always calm and in control, and I’d never seen him look so devastated. I didn’t understand the magnitude of what was going on around me, but seeing Dad so upset meant it was serious.

Twenty years later, the impact of the cold storage fire is still being felt. On a personal level, the fire has influenced my education, my choice of profession, and the work I currently do. More importantly, the fire sparked nationwide efforts that have resulted in improved firefighter safety, better fireground operations, improved building safety, and the development of innovative technology designed to support those efforts. Initiatives are still being launched throughout the fire and life safety community that can trace their origins, at least in part, to what happened that night at the old warehouse on Franklin Street.


A large and violent fire

The next day, when the last of the flames had finally been extinguished, WFD launched a search for the bodies of the missing men. Over the next week, people gathered at the fenced-off site to watch as the firefighters methodically picked through the rubble. Dad would pick me up from school and drive us to the site, where he would shake the hands of the firefighters and thank them for their efforts, instructing me to do the same. He attended Joe’s wake, where people waited several hours in the cold for a chance to say a few words to the family. He shared stories with the McGuirks, recalling Joe’s big, booming laugh. Joe was a former contractor who’d been with the WFD for two years and loved the job. He’d signed up for scuba lessons, hoping to one day join the department’s underwater rescue team.

On December 9, as the search for the bodies continued, a memorial service and procession were held in Worcester. The outpouring of shock and grief was immense. Thousands of firefighters from around the country, as well as Canada and Ireland, attended. Dignitaries in attendance included President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Massachusetts Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry.

One by one, the bodies of the missing firefighters, including Joe, were recovered. On December 11, after eight days of round-the-clock searching, the last body was found. The firefighters who’d been lost—James Lyons III, Jeremiah Lucey, Timothy Jackson, Paul Brotherton, Thomas Spencer, and Joe McGuirk—became known as the “Worcester Six.”

In hindsight, it could be that no one fully appreciated the hazards posed by the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building. The six-story, L-shaped warehouse at 266 Franklin Street was constructed in 1905 to preserve food, and extraordinary steps had been taken to keep the interior cold. Its brick walls were 18 inches thick and were lined on the interior with 6–18 inches of asphalt-infused cork. Polystyrene, polyurethane, and Styrofoam—like the asphalt infusion, all petroleum products—were later layered over the cork, creating a sandwich of insulating materials that, given the right conditions, could pack the combustibility of gasoline. There were few windows in the building, and most had been boarded over. Most of the floors were mazes of storage lockers; wayfinding was nonexistent, and even cold-storage employees had routinely gotten lost in the building. There were no fire alarm or sprinkler systems. The warehouse had sat empty since 1991, with the exception of homeless people who found their way in seeking shelter. Reportedly, some WFD members admitted that the building—or, more accurately, the prospect of fighting a fire in the building—terrified them.



An archival photograph from 1957 showing the block-like Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building. Courtesy of Worcester Historical Museum.


Smoke was reported coming from the cold storage building at 6:13 p.m., and firefighters responded to a single alarm. A second alarm was called at 6:19 p.m., even though firefighters couldn’t tell where in the building the fire was located. At 6:20 p.m., incident command radioed central dispatch requesting any available building information, but none was ever found or received. A crew used an interior stairwell to access the roof and created a vent by breaking a large skylight that topped an elevator shaft; heavy smoke and embers poured from the hole. Down on the street, a cop directing traffic was told by a local business owner that homeless people lived in the building, information that was relayed to the WFD. Ten minutes after the WFD arrived, there were more than two dozen firefighters in the building—some looking for people, some searching for the seat of the fire. Despite the heavy smoke gushing from the rooftop vent, the air was clear throughout much of the building, or showed only faint wisps of smoke.

What firefighters didn’t realize was that the blaze had been going for as much as an hour or more by the time they arrived, and the fortress-like building had concealed how developed and violent the fire had become. An interior fire wall that divided the building in two also made it difficult for some crews to assess the severity of the blaze. Investigators later determined that a homeless couple had knocked over a candle on the second floor, starting a fire in clothes and other belongings. They apparently tried but failed to put the fire out, and left the building without reporting it. Instead, they walked to a nearby music store and listened to CDs.

When firefighters on the second floor located the fire at 6:22 p.m., it was roaring. Some of the men were concerned by the fire’s behavior; doors that had been opened around the building, along with the rooftop vent at the top of the elevator shaft, were causing the fire to race toward the elevators, with smoke and heat being sucked higher into the structure. The cold storage building, fueled by its lethal layers of insulation, was becoming a giant stove. Four hoses were on the fire, but they hardly put a dent in it. Within minutes, conditions inside much of the building deteriorated; dense, acrid black smoke suddenly descended through sections of the floors and stairwells, collapsing on itself, blotting out everything. A third alarm was called at 6:42 p.m., and interior command ordered everyone down for a head count.

But the momentum had already shifted. At 6:47 p.m., two firefighters radioed that they were lost somewhere high in the building—investigators later determined it was the fifth floor—and couldn’t find their way out. Firefighters in teams of two launched a search, even as fire conditions continued to worsen, and a fourth alarm was called at 6:54 p.m. Around 7:10 p.m., one of the search teams lost its way on the fifth floor. Another head count was called at 7:24 p.m., with some of the search teams barely making it out as the situation worsened. The head count revealed a grim surprise; six firefighters, not four, were now missing—two more had entered the building and joined the search efforts and they, too, had become lost in the darkness and chaos of the erupting building. A fifth alarm was called at 7:29 p.m. The four missing searchers were radioed for the final time at 7:48 p.m. There was no response.

A minute later, a crew still inside radioed that it feared a building collapse. Everyone was ordered out at 8 p.m., and the operation changed from an offensive attack, including search and rescue, to a defensive attack. The building was becoming an inferno; the temperature in one section would be measured at 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Fire blasted from the rooftop vent 100 feet into the night sky.

WFD hadn’t experienced a line-of-duty death since 1962. At the time of the cold storage fire, the six fatalities were the most suffered in a non-wildfire event by a fire department in the US since 1988. The cold storage fire was the first structure fire in the nation’s history with six or more firefighter fatalities where contributing factors did not include a building collapse or an explosion—the Worcester firefighters were simply overwhelmed by an immensely powerful fire. Two of the firefighters died as a result of severe thermal injuries and exposure to heat and noxious gases. Four died of inhalation of smoke and hot gases.

Six counts of involuntary manslaughter were brought against the two homeless people who started the fire, but were dismissed. The charges were reinstated on appeal and dismissed again in 2010.


A nationwide response

In 2000, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a detailed report on the Worcester cold storage fire. The report included a set of 13 sweeping recommendations—see “Game Changers,” below—aimed at improving safety for the nation’s firefighters, ranging from new approaches to mitigate the fire hazards of abandoned buildings to evaluating the use of thermal imaging cameras to locate lost firefighters. While many of the recommendations were regarded as highly ambitious, they nevertheless helped launch a series of programs and innovations that continue to impact modern fire safety—and would also influence my life and career.

In 2011, I enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), an engineering college located about a mile from the old cold storage site. By then, 266 Franklin Street had been transformed: a new state-of-the-art fire station had been constructed there in 2008, and included a memorial dedicated to the Worcester Six. I studied civil engineering at WPI, but wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. My sophomore year, I saw a position posted in the fire protection engineering (FPE) department for a laboratory assistant. The project was a joint effort by WPI and the WFD to develop a hydrogen cyanide, or HCN, detector that firefighters could wear on the fireground. HCN can exist in heavy concentrations in smoke and is extremely toxic, and the device would alert firefighters to the danger. I thought it sounded pretty interesting, so I applied. I got the job.

As it turned out, the HCN detector project was the latest in a series of projects undertaken by WPI’s Center for First Responder Technology. The center had been created as a direct response to a recommendation in the NIOSH report, which encouraged manufacturers and research organizations to “conduct research into refining existing [technology] and developing new technology to track the movement of firefighters on the fireground.” The goals of the center included the development of technology that could track the locations of firefighters inside buildings and perform a range of other functions in support of firefighter safety. More recently, the Center for First Responder Technology has contributed advancements to an array of emerging technologies, including a flashover predictor, physiological monitoring equipment to supervise firefighters’ vital signs, and a fireproof attack hose designed to be more reliable than typical fire service equipment. Similar initiatives nationwide have also contributed a variety of firefighter safety improvements.

In addition to prompting the development of new technologies to enhance fireground safety, the cold storage fire also had a lasting impact on fire prevention strategies and important areas related to fireground operations, especially involving vacant buildings. WFD devised a comprehensive fire prevention strategy that included more frequent inspections of abandoned buildings, a stricter enforcement of building codes, and costly fines for building owners who failed to secure their properties. The methodology used by Worcester was adopted in communities throughout Massachusetts, which experienced a 32 percent reduction in the number of fires involving vacant buildings in the year following the cold storage fire. The city also began to mark vacant buildings with large placards to warn firefighters and first responders about the conditions of the building, requirements that were later adopted into the state building code. The placards communicate that extreme caution should be exercised when entering the building, or preferably that a defensive, exterior attack should be used. The WFD also hired a full-time incident safety officer and implemented the use of guide ropes and high-intensity floodlights at entry locations to help firefighters get out of buildings during fires.

Driven in part by the NIOSH recommendation, work also continued on the development of thermal imaging technology that was more compact, more effective, and more affordable. The cameras can be used to see through smoke, find people in burning buildings, and locate hot spots, all of which the WFD needed during the cold storage fire—but it didn’t own a camera, which was regarded as too costly. (A camera was provided by a mutual aid fire department during the cold storage fire, but it failed.) That work has had a dramatic result; in 2001, only 24 percent of fire departments in the US had access to the technology, but by 2010 that figure had grown to roughly 73 percent. According to the “Third Needs Assessment of the US Fire Service” report published by NFPA in 2011, this growth represented one of the steepest acquisition rates ever seen for any technology in the fire service.



Today, the property where the Worcester cold storage warehouse once stood houses a fire station that includes a memorial to the Worcester Six. Courtesy of Britton W. Crosby/capecodfd.com.

Part of that success has been due to departments being able to afford the equipment. The all-hazards expectations placed on the fire service required an array of resources, many of them costly, and at the time of the Worcester cold storage fire, a chorus of fire service voices was calling for federal assistance to help departments nationwide obtain the necessary equipment, personnel, and training. Events like the Worcester fire underscored these needs, as did intensified advocacy efforts from WFD officials and many others around the country.

The result was the creation of the federal Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, which launched in 2001. The AFG program is administered through the Firefighter Investment and Response Enhancement Act, which authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to award grants on a competitive basis to fire departments for an array of purposes. In 2019, the AFG program provided $350 million to fire departments nationwide—including roughly $210,000 to the WFD for the purchase of thermal imaging cameras.

In Worcester, a native son also stepped up to address the funding problem. Denis Leary, the actor and comedian, grew up in the city and was a cousin of Jeremiah Lucey and a childhood friend of Thomas Spencer, two of the Worcester Six. In response to the cold storage fire, he launched the Leary Firefighters Foundation in 2000 as a way to help fire departments obtain equipment, technology, and training. According to learyfirefighters.org, since its inception the foundation has committed more than $10 million for programs, equipment, and other assistance to fire departments in New York, Boston, Worcester, New Orleans, Detroit, and elsewhere. Through fundraising partnerships, the foundation supported the WFD by donating a state-of-the-art firefighter training facility, an SCBA response unit, a new rescue boat, and additional equipment, including thermal imaging cameras. Coupled with the AFG grants, efforts like Leary’s have become critical sources of funding for fire departments throughout the country, providing money that has been instrumental in improving the availability of fire service technology.


A new generation 

I never did become a civil engineer. In my lab assistant job for the HCN project, I recorded device data during testing at the state’s fire academy, and I wore turnout gear to demo the device myself in a burning building. I loved it—I felt an immediate connection to the work that I’d never felt before, and I knew I’d found my path. Fire protection engineering felt like coming full circle, back around to that night on I-290 as we saw the cold storage building on fire, to seeing my Dad distraught, to hearing the stories of Joe McGuirk’s laugh. I got my degree in civil engineering in 2015 from WPI, but went directly into the school's master’s program in FPE. In my application letter, I wrote about the impact of the cold storage fire on the city of Worcester and how it had shaped the FPE program at WPI.

I joined NFPA as a researcher last year, studying fires worldwide. I analyze fire incident data and look at new ways to use this valuable information. The data holds a lot of answers for us if we can figure out the right ways to look at it, and the right questions to ask.

I’m still drawn to solutions that address the lessons learned in the Worcester fire, and one recent project in particular has captured my attention. In a partnership between the Fire Protection Research Foundation and the University of New Mexico, researchers are evaluating the use of machine learning to recognize entities using thermal imaging cameras, improve firefighter locator navigation, detect personal alert safety system device alarms through the filtering of fireground noise, and evaluate the breathing rates of firefighters to determine how long their oxygen supplies will last—challenges that had a profound impact on the firefighters in the cold storage fire. The project is still in development, but it offers promising solutions to several of the lofty objectives described in the 2000 NIOSH report.

I’m still fascinated with the view from the highway every time I drive into Worcester, even if it looks nothing like what I remember as a kid. The abandoned buildings are disappearing, replaced by a flurry of new construction and redeveloped properties. It feels like the city is being reborn.

Not that the old Worcester is going quietly. A couple of years ago, another abandoned downtown landmark, the old Paris Cinema, was torn down to make way for a beer garden. During demolition, a large rubble pile at the site caught fire, threatening neighboring buildings. Fire trucks surrounded the area, snarling the afternoon rush hour. Firefighters quickly extinguished the flames. There were no injuries. 

MATTHEW FOLEY is a research associate in the Applied Research Division at NFPA. Scott Sutherland, NFPA Journal editor, contributed to this article. Top photograph: AP/WIDE WORLD


In This Section
  • Game Changers The 13 recommendations from the 2000 NIOSH report on the Worcester cold storage fire