A Family Grieves: Tragedy underlines Worcester’s unique place in the world

Worcester Magazine (Dec. 1999) 

We are a transient society; a nation of corporate gypsies rarely stopping in one place long enough to learn our neighbor’s names. That’s the conventional view of America at the Millennium.

This past week, the country learned that, despite what the book title says, Worcester is not America, at least not in that sense.

“We not only know the firefighters, we know their families,” Mayor Raymond Mariano told the grieving Centrum crowd and the tens of thousands more listening in rapt silence via loudspeakers on city streets and TVs in corner bars, hair salons and offices. “We know their wives, their mothers and fathers, their brothers and sisters. We know their children, and our children know their children.”

“Do you?” this relative newcomer asked a colleague. In journalists, cynicism runs deep.

“Yes,” he answered simply. From the tears and sniffles of the others jammed around the TV, it was evident that he was not alone.

Actually Ray, not everyone personally knew the fallen heroes, but it was apparent in every conversation, every glance, every sigh, that for each citizen of this city, they were family.

“I have kids. This could have been anyone’s family,” said Jerry Hughes, who had brought his son Elijah to the scene of the tragedy. “It really brings it home. I think this is why a lot of people are here. I get a chilling effect just thinking about them going in there knowing their partners were in there.”

It was this that made Worcester’s tragedy so poignant — that it was Worcester’s tragedy. This was not simply a community expressing sorrow for the men who died, though there was that; this was not just a city sympathizing with the wives and children left behind, though there was that.

No, the tragedy produced something rarely seen in America today; a city convulsed in sorrow.

“A blue-collar city,” The New York Times called Worcester last week, and it was precisely that which was the city’s strength.

The day after a bomb rocked the World Trade center, few New Yorkers could name the victims, but they did fret about what it meant for their own safety. When riots erupted in L.A., Angelenos literally headed for the hills, abandoning to their fate those caught up in the violence. When disaster struck in Worcester, the question that echoed through this city was, “What can I do to help?”

Kitchens, wallets and hearts were thrown open as Worcesterites offered of themselves, without pretense or thought of self. Millions of dollars have already been raised for the families of the six fallen firefighters, but no one will ever be able to quantify the value of all the food, services and support that has come from every neighborhood — from the restauranteurs, to the police working overtime without pay, to the ordinary citizens who offered the most priceless gifts of all, a pat on the back for a desolate firefighter, or even a hug.

“It’s like Beirut,” one Worcesterite told an out-of-town friend last week, recalling the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks. And in some ways, it was:

Desperate men clawing through a building brought to its knees.

Body-bags solemnly carried from a smoking ruin.

The thousand-yard stare of survivors blaming themselves for being alive.

Like the Marines in Beirut, men and women in uniform closed ranks around the tragedy — from the firefighters of neighboring towns who stood watch for Worcester’s engine companies so they could search for their fallen buddies, to the rivers of blue and black that converged on the Centrum last week, leaving the city awash in a sea of grief.

“Helpless does not begin to explain how I feel,” said a firefighter from Springfield, as policemen from Boston and Newton directed traffic nearby.

At the site of the tragedy, an acrid black smoke rose over the ruined warehouse which, for eight long days, stubbornly refused to return its victims — red tongues of flame rising from the charred wreckage as if mocking the endless procession of the uniformed family of firefighters, police and emergency services workers who filed solemnly past.

That the president of the United States came to pay homage to their fathers will be a memory the children of the six heroes can cling to proudly. But the arrival of Vice President/presidential candidate Gore at the smoldering warehouse to demonstrate his solidarity — in view of the cameras — barely caused a ripple in the parade of sorrow. The shared soul of the emergency services family had lost a piece of its heart; no outsider could truly share their pain.

As in Beirut, the trauma has taken its toll on the psyche of the men who stood helpless as the low-oxygen alarms of their trapped colleagues screamed from their fiery funeral pyre.

But the Marines who filled body bags with 241 buddies who perished in the Beirut bombing had victories as well. Along with the dead, scores of survivors were dug from the rubble, broken and battered, but alive.

For the firefighters of Worcester, there was no such hope.

It was that which made the task that much more grim, and the successful culmination of the grim task bittersweet.

“We’ve brought everybody home now,” an exhausted Fire Chief Dennis L. Budd told reporters late Saturday night, after the remains of the last victim, Paul A. Brotherton, was carried from the ruins.

And as the tragedy has forever scarred the consciousness of Worcester’s men and women in uniform, so too has it taken its toll on the collective psyche of a city that has suffered the kind of body-blow that would be staggering even in time of war.

“I felt like a weight was lifted Sunday when I heard they got out the last body,” said one Worcester native. “I don’t know why it’s affected me so much.”

For a reporter who has now covered both disasters, it is this that so separates the tragedy of Worcester from the Marines’ horror in Beirut. Each was senseless in its own way, fanaticism in one, self-centered negligence in the other. Each left painful scars.

But in that foreign land, the Marines physically and emotionally sealed the perimeter and internalized their grief. Some Beirutis nodded sympathetically, and quickly went on with their lives. So, too, the folks back home.

Here the pain is felt wide and deep. The city’s roots have been exposed, and they are inextricably intertwined.

At Camp Lejeune, N.C., survivors and family members of the victims gather each year at the Beirut memorial to remember those who perished.

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