Today is the 20th anniversary of the Cold Storage fire that took the lives of six Worcester firefighters, who sacrificed everything to save the lives of their fellow firefighters and two homeless people they’d never met. Everyone who grew up around here remembers what it used to say on the side of that building, which you’d see when you drove by it on 290:
“Every great American city has at least 1 college, Worcester has 10.”
This is probably fake news, but seeing that sign was a reminder to me as a kid that we were almost home. I don’t know what that building existed for besides that sign, but inside of it was a multi-story maze with no windows or lights. This article from Worcester Magazine 10 years ago is probably the best re-telling of that night I’ve ever read on it. Try taking a trip down memory land and checking out all these pictures from the tragedy on the Turtlegram, and not shedding a tear. You can’t.
This picture is still amazing, showing what looks exactly like a firefighter rising from the building.
Everyone from around here remembers where they were that night. I was a senior in high school working at State Liquor in bottle returns. It was the greatest job I’ve ever had. On my first day there I was instructed that part of the job required emptying out a coke can and refilling it with your choice of beer all night long. I used to look forward to going to work.
I remember on that night the old guy I worked with came back and told me that two firefighters were missing on Franklin Street. I didn’t think much of it, because missing doesn’t mean dead, and I figured they’d show up shortly. You have to understand that at the time a lot of kids never pondered the idea that firefighters wouldn’t come home from work. They showed up, put out the fire, and left.
This was also before social media so news traveled slowly. In actuality the two missing firefighters (Jeremiah Lucey and Paul Brotherton) had gone to the roof to vent it when they became overcome with smoke and went radio silent. The other four (Tom Spencer, Tim Jackson, Joe McGuirk, Jay Lyons) went missing trying to find them. It took 8 days sifting through rubble before they were all discovered. When President Clinton came to Worcester to deliver the eulogy at the DCU center I realized just how historically tragic this event was.
When I found out that six were dead I was stunned. Worcester is a small place, so the odds that I’d know somebody whose father or brother was one of the six was pretty high. As it turned out one of those six was Tom Spencer. Mr. Spencer, his wife and his three kids lived in my neighborhood growing up. His oldest son Pat was a year behind me at Tatnuck Magnet Elementary, and their daughter Casey was in my brother’s grade. The youngest brother Dan is a firefighter at the Tatnuck Square station, a place we used to take field trips to as kids. I remember Mr. Spencer being like a rock star to kids at Tatnuck. Everyone knew that their Dad was a firefighter, and I remember events he was invited to where he showed up in his formal firefighter clothing. The idea that he could be taken so suddenly like that was almost impossible to grasp at first.
Knowing one of the six wasn’t rare though. Pretty much everyone had a connection to someone who died in that fire. But it hasn’t stopped several of their children from joining the Worcester Fire Department, and it’s important that we don’t forget their sacrifices.