Authors: Sean Flynn
Copyright © 2002 by Sean Flynn
All rights reserved.
This book is based on the author's “The Perfect Fire,” which appeared in
magazine July 2000.
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First eBook Edition: March 2002
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Text design by Stanley S. Drate / Folio Graphics Co. Inc.
In the beginning, which was December 1999, there was David Granger, who is the editor of
magazine. He told me about watching, with tears in his eyes, a memorial service for six firemen who had died inside an old warehouse in Worcester, Massachusetts. Yet as tragic as the specific event had been, he recognized—and asked me to write about—the deeper themes involved: the courage, loyalty, and honor among men who risked their lives for one another. The story he wanted was less about one fire than about the dozens of men who fought it and the thousands of others like them in small towns and big cities who would have done the same.
David had to wait six months for that story, but he was patient. He assigned Andy Ward, the finest editor working in magazines, to help me shape it, and Luke Zaleski, a dogged researcher, to check each of the facts. And the final product, which was published in July 2000, became the frame upon which this book was eventually built. For all of that, David, I am extremely grateful.
There were others, of course, who helped along the way. Early on, Dr. John A. Greene, a psychologist who specializes in counseling firefighters, guided me into their subculture, made introductions, vouched for my character, and explained the nuances of a fireman's head. Mike Mullane from the International Association of Fire Fighters and Frank Raffa and Ed Ryan from IAFF Local 1009 opened my first doors into the Worcester Fire Department. Their assistance was invaluable and appreciated.
My agent, David Black, has provided wise counsel and unwavering support, which makes him as fine a friend and ally as any man deserves. My editor, Rick Horgan, taught me how to craft a mountain of facts into a long and proper narrative. It would be difficult to overstate either of their contributions.
During months of writing, a number of people accomodated me in one way or another. John Gearan of the Worcester
and Charles P. Pierce, a Worcester native and gifted writer, both tried to explain their city to me. Luke Zaleski signed on for the daunting task of checking each of the facts that follow. Suzi Samowski and her staff at Bukowski Tavern never once complained when I hogged the corner table and asked for a fresher pot of coffee. Ted Miller and Bernadette Carr were irreplaceable confidants. Brekke Fletcher, Liz Wallace, and Ingrid Eberly indulged my rougher passages and offered their sage advice. And Louise Jarvis blessed me with her insight, her companionship, and her tolerant love.
None of these words would have been written, however, without the cooperation of scores of people in Worcester. Denise Brotherton, Mary Jackson, Michelle Lucey, Jim and Joan Lyons, Linda McGuirk, and Kathy Spencer were all exceedingly generous with their time and their memories. So, too, were dozens of firemen, too many to mention by name but many of whom appear in the following pages. I am indebted to all of them, and especially to District Chief Michael O. McNamee. Two years ago, his men told me that they thought Mike was a hero. He would never use that word to describe himself, but it is true. I hope he believes it, and that it brings him some comfort.
The fire started sometime between 4:30 and 6 p.m. on December 3, 1999, when a candle tipped onto a pile of clothing in a makeshift bedroom on the second floor.
At 6:15, two minutes after the first alarm was struck for a fire at Worcester Cold Storage, men from Ladder 1 and Rescue 1 forced open a door on the loading dock.
At about 6:18, after climbing the stairs on the B wall and breaking through a bulkhead on the roof, Paul Brotherton and Jerry Lucey vented the building by smashing out a glass skylight covering an elevator shaft. The hole in the roof, fifteen-feet by fifteen-feet, allowed smoke and hot air to escape.
At 6:20, Stephen “Yogi” Connole and John Casello found the fire on the second floor. While waiting for hoses to be brought up and charged, Yogi wrestled to keep the door closed. With fresh air flowing from the B side of the building and hot air blowing up through the C-side elevator shaft, a strong draft pulled the door toward the fire.
For the next twenty-five minutes, firemen flanked the fire, attacking it with hoses threaded up both the B-side stairs and C-stairs. The flames were aggressive, feeding on cool air sucked in from below. At 6:40, a third alarm was struck, dispatching another twelve men to assist the forty-two already battling the fire.
A minute later, at approximately 6:41, the building filled with black smoke, reducing visibility to zero in less than four seconds. District Chief Mike McNamee, choking on smoke in the B stairs, ordered every man down to the first floor for a head count.
At 6:46, Jerry Lucey, who was on the fifth floor with Paul Brotherton when conditions deteriorated, keyed his radio. “Rescue 600 to command,” he said. “We need help on the floor below the top floor of the building. We're lost.”
Search teams were immediately assembled at the bottom of the B stairs. McNamee ordered men to use safety lines as they crawled into the boiling black on the floors above, feeling for Brotherton and Lucey. Twenty-two minutes after Lucey's first transmission, Lieutenant Tom Spencer radioed from the fifth floor that he and his men were lost. Eight minutes later, he sent a final broadcast. “Ladder 2 to Command,” he said. “We're done…”
After searching for more than an hour, Mike McNamee realized the six men were missing and that more might die if he didn't call off the rescue attempt. He stood at the bottom of B stairs, physically blocking his men from pushing past him. “Listen to me,” he yelled. “We've already lost six. We're not going to lose anymore.” Two minutes before eight o'clock, the building was ordered evacuated.
HE SMOKE BANKED DOWN LIKE BOLTS OF BLACK VELVET, HEAVY
sheets curling and rolling and folding together. A man could lose perspective in such a cloud, the vapor so dense and oily that it carried a physical weight, like tar, hot and sticky and misted into the air. Through the plastic of his face mask, Lt. Mike McNamee could see a dirty orange glow in the haze, brighter when the smoke puffed one updraft, then dimmer when the fog closed again. If he trusted his eyes, which he didn't, the flames might have been forty feet away, or sixty, or maybe only twenty. So he trusted his skin, believed in the warmth pushing through his turnout coat. He was down on all fours, crawling across a wood floor, staying low, ducking under the worst of the heat. Down there, in the coolest inches, he figured the temperature was only 125 degrees, maybe 150. He guessed the fire, burning at the back end of a warehouse storeroom eighty feet deep and half as wide, was about forty-five feet away.
“Lieutenant, you wanna open it up?”
The nozzle man, a lump in the dark barely an arm's reach away, shouted the words. Every man in a firefight had to shout, throw his voice through the mask on his face and the droning thunder of the flames. The sound was muffled, almost slurred to an unpracticed ear.
“Not yet,” Mike hollered back. “Let's keep moving. Get up close where we can hit it directly.”
There were three of them, creeping across the warehouse floor and dragging a hose two and a half inches in diameter loaded with almost four hundred pounds of water. The nozzle man in front and another firefighter in the rear flanked Mike, the ranking officer that night in 1981 on Engine 4 out of the Worcester Fire Department's Park Avenue station. Mike was young for a lieutenant, just a few months past his thirty-first birthday. With his shallow chin and thin-framed spectacles, he sometimes looked like an English professor, which is what he had wanted to be before he dropped out of college. He had a reputation as being mildly bookish anyway, a man who studied fire, the alchemy of oxygen and heat and fuel, and the choreographed chaos of fire suppression: how and when to attack and vent and retreat. But he also had the sturdy build of a fireman, a solid frame conditioned by years humping up smoky tenement stairs and clambering over flaming roofs with seventy pounds of gear on his back. In almost nine years since he'd joined the fire department in his hometown in the middle of Massachusetts, Mike had helped put out more than a thousand blazes, which wasn't an unusual number for a man working that job in that place in those years.
Worcester in the 1970s and early 1980s was a withered industrial city, a factory town abandoned by factory owners and factory workers. Below downtown, just beyond the interstate overpass, old warehouses stood hollow, their insides gutted except for the trash and scraps that could feed a renegade spark. The hills above the Blackstone Valley were lined with sagging wood-framed triple-deckers, tinder-dry and stacked dense as cordwood. The Main South neighborhood was a sprawling slum of deteriorating tenements and abandoned storefronts. And for most of the decade all of it was on fire, the whole city burning lot by lot and night by night. Frayed wires spit sparks onto carpets and curtains, corroded black pipes leaked gas into antiquated kitchens, drunks passed out with Marlboros between their arthritic fingers. Pyromaniacs, half-crazed or halfwitted or both, set light to trash cans and gas station bathrooms and flophouse porches and dry stands of grass. What didn't burn by accident or for sport burned for cash. Arson was epidemic, landlords and investors charring the last scraps of profit from decrepit properties, a depressing number of which were worth more as heavily insured ruins than as cheaply rented apartments or vacant commercial space. Some shifts, it seemed all of Worcester might burn to the ground. In the worst years, an engine crew would routinely fight three fires in a single night, and five wasn't uncommon.
After a decade on the frontlines, a flaming warehouse wasn't a particularly formidable foe. Potentially dangerous, sure. But predictable, not exceptionally different from a hundred other skirmishes Mike had been through. He knew the best attack was in close. A two-and-a-half-inch line sprayed out roughly 250 gallons every minute, enough to wash the life out of most medium-size fires. But if the stream missed the flames, if it fell short and hit nothing but superheated air, all that liquid would atomize, instantly mushroom into steam, blow back and down in a scalding vapor. So he ordered his men, nearly blinded by the smoke and hobbled by the weight of their gear and the hose, to keep inching forward. Another fifteen feet, twenty at the most.
ike was judging the distance to the flames not just by the heat but also by his fresh memory of the building. This was the second time that night Engine 4, along with three other engines, two ladder trucks, and the rescue squad—the normal complement sent to a working fire—had been dispatched to Jacques Street, a short block of squat brick warehouses and machine shops along the tracks of the Providence and Worcester Railroad. The first alarm for 82 Jacques Street came in just after dinner, when the men in the Park Avenue station were wiping the last drops of gravy from their mustaches and splashing their plates into a sink of sudsy water. Three tones sounded, abrupt and abrasive, electrified burps. Then the dispatcher's deadpan voice from the speaker bolted to the wall: “Engine 2, Engine 4, Engine 5, Engine 10, Ladder 4, Scope 3, Rescue 1, Car 4. Striking Box 1575 for a reported structure fire at 82 Jacques Street.”