Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse Fire 1999

Today December 3, 2010 marks the 11th anniversary of the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire that resulted in the line of duty death of six courages brother firefighters.   

For those of you who remember this event, take the time to reflect and honor the sacrifice made this day; to those of you who have not heard about the fire before- take the time to learn about the incident, the firefighters, the building, the operational factors and challenges, the courage, fortitude and convictions that define the American Fire Service, it’s honor, tradition and brotherhood.   

The Worcester Six;   

  • Firefighter Paul Brotherton Rescue 1
  • Firefighter Jeremiah Lucey Rescue 1
  • Lieutenant Thomas Spencer Ladder 2
  • Firefighter Timothy Jackson Ladder 2
  • Firefighter James Lyons Engine 3
  • Firefighter Joseph McGuirk Engine

   

On Friday, December 3, 1999, at 1813 hours, the Worcester, Massachusetts Fire Department dispatched Box 1438 for 266 Franklin Street, the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. A motorist had spotted smoke coming from the roof while driving on an adjacent elevated highway. The original building was constructed in 1906, contained another 43,000 square feet. Both were 6 stories above grade. The building was known to be abandoned for over 10 years.   

Due to these and other factors, the responding District Chief ordered a second alarm within 4 minutes of the initial dispatch. The first alarm assignment brought 30 firefighters and officers and 7 pieces of apparatus to the scene. The second provided an additional 12 men and 3 trucks as well as a Deputy Chief. Firefighters encountered a light smoke condition throughout the warehouse, and crews found a large fire in the former office area of the second floor. An aggressive interior attack was started within the second floor and ventilation was conducted on the roof. There were no windows or other openings in the warehousing space above the second floor.   

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.   

Copywrite 1999 Roger B. Conant All Rights Reserved

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.   

A subsequent exterior attack was set up and lasted for over 20 hours utilizing aerial pieces and deluge guns from Worcester and neighboring departments. Task force groups from across the State of Massachusetts responded to initial suppression and subsequent recovery efforts. During this time, the four upper floors collapsed onto the second which became known as “the deck”. Over 6 million gallons of water were used during the suppression efforts.   

According to NFPA records, this is the first loss of six firefighters in a structure fire where neither building collapse nor an explosion was a contributing factor to the fatalities.     

 

Fireground Operations

    

KEY ISSUES   

Abandoned building left unprotected and unsecured.   

  • The failure to properly secure and maintain security at this warehouse allowed vagrants to enter, live in, and cause a fire in the building.
  • The lack of detection and suppression systems allowed the fire to grow unrestrained until discovered from the outside.

No barriers to prevent the spread of fire and smoke in a large space.   

  • Despite some floors having over 15,000 square feet of storage space, there were no rated fire walls, functioning fire doors, or even an interior finish that would help limit fire growth and the spread of heat and smoke.

Fire spread via combustible interior finishes.   

  • Being a cold storage warehouse, many walls and ceilings were covered with a combustible insulation material including cork, tar, expanded polystyrene foam, and sprayed-on polyurethane foam.

Delayed fire reporting   

  • The building occupants left the warehouse without notifying authorities, and the fire was reported by passing motorists who observed smoke venting from the roof.
  • The absence of uncovered windows also prevented earlier detection from the exterior.

Access limitations for fire suppression and rescue.   

  • Building construction featured a single staircase from the basement to the roof. This vertical opening was the only way to move through all levels and was congested with men and equipment from the start of operations.
  • The storage areas of the warehouse had no windows. These two factors left firefighters above the first floor without a secondary escape route and prevented ladder and rescue operations through windows.

Unusually long interior travel distances.   

  • Firefighters had to crawl over 200 feet through heavy smoke from the single staircase to conduct a proper search.
  • Most lifelines were only 50 foot and SCBA air was limited to 30 minutes.
  • Searches and rescue operations were ineffective under these circumstances.

    

Exterior Circa 1998

BUILDING HISTORY AND CONSTRUCTION   

The Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse building was a six story structure at 266 Franklin Street in the heart of Worcester’s former warehousing and cold storage district. In the first half of the 21st century, cold storage was vital to the preservation and delivery of food before refrigerators became commonplace in American kitchens. The location was ideal with rail service provided by the former Boston and Albany Railroad which had a siding against the south end of the warehouse.   

Even after the post-WWII decline in railroads, truck traffic was easily accommodated over nearby roads and later on the abutting Interstate 290 which was built in the late 1960’s.   

The original warehouse (called “A-building” in previous reports) was constructed in 1906, faced due north onto Franklin Street and bordered Arctic Street to the east. There were six storage levels as well as a basement. The building measured 88 feet by 88 feet and had over 7,000 square feet of floor space on each level. The warehouse had an approximate exterior height of 80 feet.   

An addition (called “B-building”) was constructed in 1912 against the west wall of A-building and measured 72 feet by 120 feet on the third floor and above. The 72 foot wall faced Franklin Street. The first and second floors were 88 foot and 101 foot deep respectively to accommodate railroad sidings and other structures on the southern on “C” side. Other investigations have referred to the former western exterior wall of A-building as “the fire wall” but there is no indication that this was a planned function. At least one opening was cut through this party wall on each level to access the new addition. B-building provided an additional 7,000 square feet of storage on the third floor and over 8,000 on floors four through six.   

The Worcester Cold Storage complex involved additional structures to the south, but these were physically separate buildings and were not involved in this incident. The known openings between the warehouse and the southern structures were for utilities and refrigerants. The only effect was to block aerial access from the south during the fire.   

  • Construction methods appear to be the same in both A and B buildings.
  • Exterior walls were 18 inches thick and consisted of brick and mortar. Interior floors on the first and second levels were poured concrete and were supported by cast iron columns.
  • The concrete was covered with carpet or asbestos tile where appropriate for use.
  • Upper floors were of heavy timber construction with 12 foot long 4 inch by 12 inch wood joists (16 inch o.c.) resting in pockets in the east and west brick exterior walls and attached to 16 inch by 16 inch wood girders on the inside.
  • The girders were on 12 foot centers and rested on 16 inch by 16 inch wood columns which were spaced 12 feet apart in both dimensions.
  • Flooring consisted of two layers of tongue and groove hardwood with some areas having an additional layer of 3/8 inch diamond plate.
  • Ceilings on individual floors varied from open joists in storage areas to be a suspended ceiling in the office area on the second floor.
  • Photographs taken prior to the fire suggest that some sections also had “glass board” as a finished surface. The exact make up of this material has not been determined.
  • No documentation was made of ceiling heights within the warehouse, but it appears they were approximately 11 foot throughout.
  • The roof was tar and gravel over a wood deck which covered a 4 foot tall cockloft above the sixth floor ceiling/roof assembly.
  • Roof penetrations included the stairway and elevator shaft on the east end of A-building and a skylight over the elevator shafts on B-building. An illuminated billboard sat on the roof of B-building and received power external to the warehouse structure.

NOTE: For the balance of this report the entire fire building will be referred to as the “warehouse” which consists of “A-building” on the east and “B-building” on the west. The A and B terminology was adopted early on in other investigations and should not be confused with fireground identifications of sides “A, B, C, & D”. In a large complex such as this, other terminology could have been created such as “Building 1”, “Building Z”, etc. (refer to the USFA Report for diagrams)   

BUILDING USE   

Worcester Cold Storage, a business, occupied the warehouse from 1906 until 1983 when it was sold to Chicago Dressed Beef. In 1987, CDB Realty Trust purchased the warehouse. CDB moved its operations to Millbrook Street in 1988 and shut down the refrigeration system in 1989 at which time the building was abandoned.   

During its use, various petroleum based insulation materials were incorporated into the building including rigid expanded polystyrene boards and blown on polyurethane foam. These were applied to improve the temperature performance of the buildings Additionally, condensation along the exterior walls lead to the decay of some floor joists. Steel beams or angle brackets were added against the brick walls to pick up the floor load in several places.   

  • Even to long term employees, the building was hard to navigate.
  • The upper four stories were almost identical, and some workers reported getting lost under the dim interior lighting conditions.
  • Condensation would cause ice to form around the ceiling fixtures, and this cone of ice would severely limit the amount of illumination.
  • There was no useful external light then or during the fire.

After it’s closing in 1989, the building was illegally entered on many occasions, resulting in vandalism, occupancy by homeless individuals, and a number of small “campfires.” At the time the fire occurred, there were no utility services in operation. Significant amounts of garbage and human wastes were scattered around the warehouse. The homeless woman involved in this incident said the interior smelled like a sewer.   

VERTICAL PENETRATIONS   

There were three stairways in the warehouse. Stairway 1 was in the northwest corner of B-building and went from the first floor (approximate street level) up to the second floor office area. Stairway 2 was located in the southern portion of B-building and went from the first floor to the third. It may have also accessed the basement. Stairway 3 was on the east side of A-building and ran from the basement to the roof. This was the only means of egress from the upper floors and was used heavily during the fire.   

Two elevators were adjacent to stairway 3, and two more were adjacent to Stairway 2. At the time of the fire, all had been disabled, and the cars were in the basement. It is unknown if individual access doors were open or closed. The elevator shaft in B-building had a reinforced glass canopy at the roof level.   

  • A 14 inch by 14 inch shaft penetrated the ceiling of the second floor office area and originally housed a 12 inch pipe for the ammonia recovery system.
  • This may have opened through all floors, and the presence of the pipe could not be confirmed.

HORIZONTAL PENETRATIONS   

There was one opening on each level through the party wall dividing A-building from B-building. There were numerous doors and windows on the first floor, and several were forced open by firefighters to gain access. All windows on this level were secured with plywood to prevent entry. Windows on the second floor of B-building were limited to the office area in the northwest section and were also covered with plywood. There was a window on each of the second, third, and fourth floors in stairway 3 on the east side of A-building. A window opened into the adjacent elevator shaft on each of these floors also. All were blocked with plywood.   

INTERIOR FINISH   

Because the warehouse was used for cold storage, the insides of exterior walls and the roof were heavily insulated. Barriers between office space and freezer space were also heavily insulated. The original material of choice was cork which was impregnated or secured with tar. The thickness has been described from 6 inches to 18 inches depending on the location. Evidence was also found of additional layers of expanded polystyrene sheets and blown on polyurethane. In many places the finished surface was “glass board”. A recovered piece of this glass board was ignited by Worcester Fire personnel after this incident. The sample sustained combustion and gave off stringy black smoke not unlike pure styrene.   

It was reported that all the interior partitions were made of corkboard, but it was probably a covering rather than a structural element. The office walls on the second floor were paneling installed over drywall. Many photographs of the cold storage areas taken before the fire show interior surfaces with a clean outer appearance consistent with the glass board. This would have provided a cleanable and wear resistant surface as opposed to bare cork or foam insulation.   

INTERIOR LAYOUT   

Since the fire did not extend to the basement or first floor, the layout of these spaces is less important. The first floor did, however, provide the access to the rest of the building for fire operations. All space above the first floor was used for cold storage or moving goods with the exception of the second floor office area on the northern half of B-building.   

  

    

 

  

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