WORCESTER – Many people recalled where they were the night 20 years ago when they heard the tragic news of the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire. Others remembered the aftermath – the fire truck covered with flowers and gifts of support, the searching for remains, and the wakes and funerals. And some were too young to remember the tragedy at all.
But they were all drawn to the Franklin Street fire station Tuesday night by a common purpose: to show respect.
“I’m paying my respects because they’re Worcester’s bravest,” said Stephanie Riendeau, 21, of Worcester.
Retired Lt. Paul Joy of the Bedford Fire Department agreed.
“I’m fortunate,” Joy said. “I’ve been retired nine years, maxed out my pension, and got to go home. These guys did not.”
A crowd of more than a thousand gathered Tuesday night to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire and to remember the six lives lost in the blaze.
Several of those in the crowd remembered where they were when the tragedy struck.
Rich Hamilton, the fire chief in Millbury, said he was at home with his children listening to the scanner as the chatter got increasingly frantic.
“I was saying why couldn’t they find them … I didn’t understand,” Hamilton said.
He recalled subsequently working in the city and at the fire scene.
“It was tough,” Hamilton said. “It was like they were part of your family.”
Brad Sjosten went outside his home in the Burncoat neighborhood on Dec. 3, 1999, when he heard the helicopters flying overhead. He looked toward the action.
“I could see the flames shooting into the sky,” Sjosten recalled.
Joy was commanding a shift in Bedford also listening to the scanner as first two, then four, then six firefighters were reported missing.
“We were very somber,” Joy recalled. “We were like, ‘what’s going on here?’”
Pat Hutchins recalled going to the scene of the blaze and hearing all the apparatus blare an all-out signal.
“I’ll never forget that sound,” Hutchins said.
For others in the crowd Tuesday night, the aftermath was most memorable.
Susan Hamilton, wife of Rich Hamilton, was delivering a turkey dinner for firefighters in the Central Street station when the last body was recovered.
“Just to think of that now gives me a chill,” she said.
Victoriahope McAuliffe remembered the crowds leaving sympathy gifts at the scene of the blaze.
“There were hordes of people leaving flowers and teddy bears,” McAuliffe said.
And those feelings of sympathy remain 20 years later, drawing people to the ceremony Tuesday night.
“I think it’s huge that the whole firefighting community comes out for this department whenever something happens,” said Matt Moniz, a firefighter in northern Worcester County.
The Hamiltons both said it was important to remember the sacrifices made by the Worcester Six.
“We’ve got to save their memory,” said Rich Hamilton.
“We never want to forget,” added Susan Hamilton.
And that show of support meant a lot to members of the Worcester firefighting family.
“I love seeing the support,” said Maureen Sjosten, whose son just joined the department in June. “I’m learning about the brotherhood and how they support one another and how the community supports them, I think it’s wonderful.”