Remembering and Learning from the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse Fire Tragedy

It is 20 years ago today that six firefighters would lose their lives in a fire that would rattle not only the Worcester Fire Department but nation’s fire service as well. At a little after 6:00 p.m. the response to the initial call for smoke coming from the roof of an abandoned building would set into motion changes that would be continually tested in the years after.

On December 3, 1999 an off-duty police officer was driving by the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Company building on Franklin Street noticed smoke coming from the top of the six-story building. The first alarm was struck at 6:15 p.m.  sending four engines, two ladders, a rescue company and a district fire chief to the scene.

The NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program report summarizes what happened next in those moments after a search was begun for homeless people reportedly living inside the structure,

Read the Report: Six Career Fire Fighters Killed in Cold-Storage and Warehouse Building Fire

“Fire fighters from the apparatus responding on the first alarm were ordered to search the building for homeless people and fire extension. During the search efforts, two fire fighters (Victims 1 and 2) became lost, and at 1847 hours, one of them sounded an emergency message. A head count ordered by Interior Command confirmed which fire fighters were missing.”

“Fire fighters who had responded on the first and third alarms were then ordered to conduct search-and-rescue operations for Victims 1 and 2 and the homeless people. During these efforts, four more fire fighters became lost. Two fire fighters (Victims 3 and 4) became disoriented and could not locate their way out of the building. At 1910 hours, one of the fire fighters radioed Command that they needed help finding their way out and that they were running out of air. Four minutes later he radioed again for help. Two other fire fighters (Victims 5 and 6) did not make initial contact with command nor anyone at the scene, and were not seen entering the building. However, according to the Central Dispatch transcripts, they may have joined Victims 3 and 4 on the fifth floor.”

“At 1924 hours, IC#2 called for a head count and determined that six fire fighters were now missing. At 1949 hours, the crew from Engine 8 radioed that they were on the fourth floor and that the structural integrity of the building had been compromised. At 1952 hours, a member from the Fire Investigations Unit reported to the Chief that heavy fire had just vented through the roof on the C side. At 2000 hours, Interior Command ordered all companies out of the building, and a series of short horn blasts were sounded to signal the evacuation. Fire fighting operations changed from an offensive attack, including search and rescue, to a defensive attack with the use of heavy-stream appliances. After the fire had been knocked down, search-and-recovery operations commenced until recall of the box alarm 8 days later on December 11, 1999, at 2227 hours, when all six fire fighters’ bodies had been recovered.”

The following recommendations were presented in the NIOSH report:

  • ensure that inspections of vacant buildings and pre-fire planning are conducted which cover all potential hazards, structural building materials (type and age), and renovations that may be encountered during a fire, so that the Incident Commander will have the necessary structural information to make informed decisions and implement an appropriate plan of attack

  • ensure that the incident command system is fully implemented at the fire scene

  • ensure that a separate Incident Safety Officer, independent from the Incident Commander, is appointed when activities, size of fire, or need occurs, such as during multiple alarm fires, or responds automatically to pre-designated fires

  • ensure that standard operating procedures (SOPs) and equipment are adequate and sufficient to support the volume of radio traffic at multiple-alarm fires

  • ensure that Incident Command always maintains close accountability for all personnel at the fire scene

  • use guide ropes/tag lines securely attached to permanent objects at entry portals and place high-intensity floodlights at entry portals to assist lost or disoriented fire fighters in emergency escape

  • ensure that a Rapid Intervention Team is established and in position upon their arrival at the fire scene

  • implement an overall health and safety program such as the one recommended in NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program

  • consider using a marking system when conducting searches

  • identify dangerous vacant buildings by affixing warning placards to entrance doorways or other openings where fire fighters may enter

  • ensure that officers enforce and fire fighters follow the mandatory mask rule per administrative guidelines established by the department

  • explore the use of thermal imaging cameras to locate lost or downed fire fighters and civilians in fire environments

  • manufacturers and research organizations should conduct research into refining existing and developing new technology to track the movement of fire fighters on the fireground.

The National Fire Protection Agency also created a technical report on the Massachusetts tragedy, “Abandoned Cold Storage Warehouse Multi-Firefighter Fatality Fire” in an effort to provide valuable information as “lessons learned.” Like NIOSH, the NFPA report is intended to provide fire departments with the facts and details of the incident as well as recommendations for preventing similar tragedies in the future.

The overview of this NFPA report noted, according to their records, the first loss of six firefighters where neither building collapse nor explosion were contributing factors. A department that had not lost a firefighter during fireground operations since the 1940’s was now faced with the loss of those who would be forever remembered as the “Worcester 6.”

Read the Report: Abandoned Cold Storage Warehouse Multi-Firefighter Fatality Fire

“Eleven minutes into the fire, the owner of the abutting Kenmore Diner advised fire operations of two homeless people who might be living in the warehouse. The rescue company, having divided into two crews, started a building search. Some 22 minutes later the rescue crew searching down from the roof became lost in the vast dark spaces of the fifth floor. They were running low on air and called for help. Interior conditions were deteriorating rapidly despite efforts to extinguish the blaze, and visibility was nearly lost on the upper floors. Investigators have placed these two firefighters over 150 feet from the only available exit. An extensive search was conducted by Worcester Fire crews through the third and fourth alarms. Suppression efforts continued to be ineffective against huge volumes of petroleum based materials, and ultimately two more crews became disoriented on the upper floors and were unable to escape. When the evacuation order was given one hour and forty-five minutes into the event, five firefighters and one officer were missing. None survived.”

In the years since the Cold Storage fire the fire service has continually wrestled with risk, safety and mission, especially regarding fires in vacant or abandoned buildings.  As with any department that faces such a tragedy, the Worcester Fire Department has undergone a cultural change as well as being the spearhead of an effort to have better technology for tracking and locating firefighters.

FRM/FFN: A Cultural Transformation at the Worcester Fire Department

As the nation’s fire service remembers the six men lost on that December evening, their commitment and sacrifice is honored as departments look honestly at how they could be prepared to face a similarly devastating event. Deputy Chief John Sullivan provided a new mission for the fire service that honors the ‘Worcester 6’ in an interview with FireRescue Magazine’s Shannon Pieper,  “Be willing to embrace the fact that the world evolves and so does the fire service and, as much as we love tradition and to keep doing the things we do well, that’s not enough.”

Remembering and Learning from the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse Fire Tragedy