The commuter train had to be stopped several yards down the track because the station was perilously close to the Cold Storage Warehouse. Passengers could see the flames shooting hundreds of feet into the clear night air, the stars obscured by the smoke.
The firefighters were told that a homeless couple were inside the building and went inside for the familiar routine of search-and-rescue, instead that it was anything but routine. The insulated warehouse, built to keep meat cold, was a deathtrap. The walls were aflame in seconds, and the windowless building kept the firefighters disoriented. Finally the Chief on the scene had to give the order to evacuate. Six firefighters were turned around and didn’t make it out. Despite his men’s pleading to be allowed to go back in, the Chief stood fast. If he hadn’t, it was estimated that twenty or more firefighters would have been lost that night instead of six.
The building collapsed, and the next morning, a Saturday, smoke wreathed downtown Worcester like a thundercloud. It would linger for days.
The highway next to the city, I-290, was shut down for equipment that was needed for the search for the remains of the six men. City streets were clogged and the police had to keep their people on extra duty to direct traffic, but no one complained, understanding why they had to crawl along the streets instead of using the swift highway.
At the time I had to go into the city to catch the commuter train to Boston for grad school. I went in on Tuesday for the 6:05 A.M. run, and it was dark at that hour, long before sunrise in December. The air was clear and cold, no hint of snow. Just yards away was the scene at the Cold Storage Warehouse: lights glaring down to illuminate the rubble and smoke rising like some surreal Dali-esque painting. There were no voices heard, just the sound of boots scrambling over rubble and the scritch-scritch-scritch of the tools as the firefighters sifted through the debris for the remains of their fallen brothers. None of my fellow commuters said a word. We just watched and listened until the train came.
Later that week, President Bill Clinton came to preside at the ceremony to honor the firefighters while their comrades still searched for the last of them. Back when Clinton had been going through the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he’d come to Worcester and been welcomed warmly. I’d like to think he remembered that, and made sure to come when Worcester needed him, as Worcester had been there for him.
The final body was found, and six funerals took place. To this day, people still can't help but feel a little uneasy when they hear a fire siren as firefighters rush off to battle.
The homeless couple had not been in the warehouse when the firefighters were sent in. They had started the fire because they’d been arguing when they knocked over a candle. They’d fled the warehouse at the very beginning of the fire and had never called it in.
The Worcester Six