It was Dec. 31, 1986, when Lawrence firefighter William Middlemiss was trapped on the third floor of a burning Oak Street home. The fire was a "calamity," Middlemiss said. Parents were throwing their children out of the building when crews arrived.
Middlemiss, too, jumped out a pantry window when flashover - the simultaneous ignition of everything in a room - hit. He suffered serious burns over 23 percent of his body and spent six months at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Today, Middlemiss is the fire chief in Lexington. Yesterday, he was online looking for plane tickets to Charleston, S.C. He will be there to honor nine firefighters killed late Monday battling and trying to rescue people from a blaze at a furniture warehouse.
"The fire service is uncanny in that," Middlemiss said of the brother-like bond between firefighters nationwide. "When (Lawrence firefighter) Billy McGuire passed away, he was buried on the 23rd of December. We filled to capacity St. Mary's Church and the gymnasium across the street with firefighters. Two days before Christmas on a cold day."
William McGuire Jr. died Dec. 20, 1989, two days after a porch collapsed on him while he cleaned up after a Temple Street arson fire.
To Middlemiss, the immediate focus now should be on the families of the nine firefighters killed and the department members who made it through the night alive.
"Everybody will have to come to a realization that these families have suffered a great deal," Middlemiss said. "The Charleston Fire Department has suffered a great deal. There are many firefighters who will never be the same."
For Merrimack Valley firefighters, news of the Charleston tragedy was not wholly unexpected - 89 on-duty firefighters were killed in the United States last year - but it still hit home in an occupation where routine can turn fatal in a moment.
"The impact was devastating," Lawrence firefighter John Grant said, sitting in the truck bay at the central station on Lowell Street yesterday. "The impact was, 'They're our family.'"
"You could be sitting here one minute, have a conversation and the bell rings," Grant said. "The next minute, you're facing the devil."
Just minutes later the bell did ring. Grant and other firefighters, led by Deputy Fire Chief Brian Murphy were gone to 196 Jackson St., where food smoking on a stove set off fire alarms. They left without a goodbye, leaving firefighter Ron Lavallee and Capt. James Loffredo, the department's safety and training officer, to talk.
Haverhill firefighter Andrew Lafferty was off yesterday. He was working on his house and spending time with his children. He heard on the radio that two firefighters had been killed in Charleston. But news that nine firefighters had been killed was a shock.
"That's horrible," Lafferty said. "It's horrific. The families are going to be devastated. The guys go out to work and they're done."
Lafferty said he "couldn't imagine" what it would be like to suffer such a tragedy in Haverhill, even knowing that six firefighters were killed in a Dec. 3, 1999, blaze at the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse.
"You never think it's going to happen to you - or to us - but it absolutely could happen," he said. "Worcester happened."
It could be as much as a year before the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health releases its report on what did happen, what went wrong in Charleston. When it does, Loffredo will study the report, looking for ways to make fighting fires in Lawrence safer to make sure it doesn't happen here.
North Andover interim fire Chief William Martineau only stepped into his new role a few weeks ago, but the 29-year firefighter has an idea of what the top people in the Charleston Fire Department are going through.
"I'm sure those chiefs are second-guessing their decisions and beating themselves up over what happened," he said.
Firefighting isn't an exact science, Martineau said. Instead, it is a question of "calculated risk." In South Carolina, those calculations included the need to rescue two employees from the Sofa Super Store and warehouse, where fire broke out about 7 p.m. Monday. Those two people survived the fire.
The building would have been a "high hazard occupancy" meaning the wood, flammable furniture, stains and varnishes made for a nightmarish scenario for the firefighters who went inside, Martineau said.
Witnesses at the scene said the roof of the building collapsed, throwing debris over about two dozen rescue workers. Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley said the blaze apparently started in a storage area. Arson is not suspected. For firefighters, it was the deadliest call nationwide - not including the World Trade Center attacks - since a 1994 wildland fire killed 14 firefighters in Colorado.
But the danger comes more frequently in smaller numbers. Two Boston firefighters were injured yesterday morning when a porch collapsed on them. For firefighters in Lawrence, that served as an eerie reminder of McGuire's death.
Massachusetts at large has a sad history of firefighter deaths. The 1999 Worcester fire killed six. Thirteen firefighters were killed in a 1946 roof collapse at the Strand Theatre in Brockton.
And Sunday marked 35 years since nine firefighters were killed when a wall collapsed at the Hotel Vendome in Boston.
Returning the honor
The guys from Charleston were in Worcester in 1999. Lavallee remembers spotting the "Charleston, S.C." patch on their shirts.
The firefighters had come nearly 1,000 miles to honor the six firefighters killed there. Yesterday morning, Lavallee talked with his brother, Lawrence fire Lt. Rene Lavallee about going to South Carolina to pay their respects.
For Lavallee, it seemed especially cruel that nine men - the youngest 27, the oldest 56 - would be killed the day after Father's Day.
"They're shattered now," Lavallee said of the members of the Charleston Fire Department. "It's going to take a long time to get over it."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
BOX: Major firefighter fatalities since 1977
World Trade Center%340 killed%Sept. 2001%New York, N.Y.
Wildland fire%14 killed% July 1994 %Glenwood Springs, Colo.
Oil refinery%10 killed%July 1984%Romeoville, Ill.
Warehouse%9 killed%June 2007%Charleston, S.C.
Wildland fire%6 killed%June 1990%Payson, Ariz.
Supermarket%6 killed%Aug. 1978%New York, N.Y.
Construction site%6 killed %Nov. 1988%Kansas City, Mo.
Warehouse%6 killed%Dec. 1999%Worcester, Mass.
Radiator repair shop%5 killed%Dec. 1983%Buffalo, N.Y.
Auto dealership%5 killed%July 1988%Hackensack, N.J.
Wildland fire%5 killed%Oct. 2006%Perris, Calif.
Source: National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, Mass.