Worcester Cold Storage Fire,
18:15 hours, Friday, December 3, 1999

This document last edited December 5, 1999, AM, reflecting the latest information I have. Realize, this is the perspectives of only one person who while experienced with fires and firefighting, was not involved with operations at the fire and does not have any information other than my observations and those reported in the media.

13 years and two days after I had picked up an application to my local fire company, I stood in a parking lot watching the monolithic Worcester Cold Storage building burn, knowing six firefighters were lost inside as flames shot high above the building.

I arrived there around 19:40 that evening.  The latest news reports as I write this place the may-day call around 19:30, and I was there when the evacuation of the building was ordered around 20:00.

I work about 10 minutes northeast of Worcester, and I pass the Worcester Cold Storage building each day. It's obvious what the building was -- it's name was painted as a giant billboard on the side facing Interstate 290. And there's hardly a window in the building. Just big brick walls, five stories high and 200' on a side. These buildings are nasty to fight fires in -- thick, heavily insulated walls and roofs, no windows -- ventilation is tough and slow if possible at all. Their also traditional fireman killers. Refrigeration plants like this were the original Haz-Mat for the fire service, and the impetus for breathing apparatus to protect firefighters from Ammonia used in the old-fashion refrigeration equipment. When they were in operation, they were also notorious for being really bad for ventilation -- not only was it slow to create openings, but also the cold air would cool smoke and keep it low.  Remember though, this particular plant had been abandoned and out of operation for many years.

The building is on the corner of an industrial complex.   "Side A" is on Franklin Street (which, for a bit of Trivia, if you look up Franklin from I 290, you see the David Clark Company which manufactures radio head sets and MAST suits for emergency services), Side B is a large alley way, Side C adjoins (or has a very narrow alley -- I'm not sure) the adjacent building, and Side D is the elevated Interstate 290.  Underneath I-290 is a local landmark, The Kenmore Diner, one of Worcester's many all-night diners, and is a favorite gathering spot starting when the bars close at 2am around the city.  I have eaten many an early morning meal in that diner!   The area underneath I-290 is a series of municipal parking lots.  I parked in one of these about 2-1/2 blocks south of the fire building.

When I arrived, fire was just, just starting to vent from the roof.   As I passed the building on I-290, I did not see fire showing from the roof (although in fairness, I was jockeying at the same time to get to the off-ramp).  By the time I parked and loaded my camera, flames had broken through:

(I have made an effort to show the photos in chronological order, but I can not guarantee they are in perfect order)


Side C. For those of you familiar with Worcester, the "Every Great American City has at least One Great College…Worcester has Ten" billboard painted on the side of the fire building just below the flames in this picture. It's kind of a local landmark. At the extreme left of the picture you can see one of the supports for I-290 which is elevated in this area.

Side D. Worcester firefighters operate a 2.5" handline into a window in the fire building above the Kenmore Diner. The fire building had six windows that I know of. The windows were all located on the second floor level, at the corner of the A and D sides -- I believe this was probably the location of the offices for the company originally. Three were on the A side, three on the D side, all right at that corner.

This is Auburn Rescue 1. The A-D corner of the building is out of frame, to the left. I've included this photo for a perspective of the height of I-290 at this point -- Auburn is parked under the highway, which is elevated about 30'-40' in this area. Out of frame to the right is a large railroad yard. There is about 400' between the fire building and the railroad yard.

When I arrived, mutual aid Rescues from Auburn and Millbury were already on scene, and later in the fire more units from both departments arrived, and further mutual aid from the predominantly on-call departments around Worcester moved up to fill Worcester stations. It was Millbury's Aerialscope located on I-290, almost directly above this photo, scene in the photos in the newspapers of this scene. Millbury's Hose Reel truck laid a 4" line (I'm estimating) about 2500' to a hydrant from the highway.

Worcester Rescue 1, A-B corner. There was a rehab/medical sector set up here. The command post are is immediately to the right corner of where this photo was taken. Looking straight ahead in this photo is the alley way/courtyard where the loading dock area for the complex is located.

Medical/Rehab area. This area was setup by AMR/Worcester which provides service to many of the surrounding towns and backs up UMass/Memorial Hospital EMS ALS ambulances in Worcester (who were also present). Rescue 1 is on the right edge of the photo.

Worcester firefighters donning air packs. The fire building is about 150' right of this photo. This was taken about 5 minutes before the evacuation signal was sounded for the building.

This is the time the evacuation was ordered. The aerials are being lowered to relocate the trucks further away from the structure. This Franklin Street, the "A" side.

This is the command post area, on the A-B corner. As I was taking this photo, the air horns on the apparatus started sounding the evacuation signal. The alley/courtyard is to my left as I'm taking the photo.

This is a Worcester ladder set up in the alley way on the B side.

Worcester Ladder 2 (93' KME Mid-mount Tower) raising it's stick after relocating. This is a good shot to show what the building looked like. This is the A side. Notice, no windows -- just solid brick walls. The three windows on this side are just to the right of the photo. A chain link fence between the parking area and Franklin Street was dismantled by Millbury firefighters to allow the apparatus to be positioned here.

Worcester Firefighters preparing to raise the stick for ladder pipe operations after relocating the aerial.

Ladder 2 getting ready to setup. Notice flames venting out of the window. Later in the fire, after the roof collapsed, these three windows (the one with flames is the left most one) became a primary source for air, and the fire in this window became white hot from the volume of air feeding the fire there. It actually hurt your eyes to look at the intense fire.

Most serious fire I've been too, on or off duty, and I only had two rolls of film -- one color, one black & white. Here, State Fire Marshals who arrived just after myself survey the scene. Ladder (Tower) 2 is operating right of center, and another Worcester ladder is being setup for pipe operations left of center.

Well, that's where my film ran out.


NIOSH Report on the Fire