WORCESTER, Mass. — His name was Tim, a beefy Vietnam War veteran who rode a Harley and raised prize lilacs. Fifty-one-year-old Timothy Jackson had a screaming eagle tattoo on his shoulder, 27 years on the Worcester Fire Department and a face, friends said, like the Cowardly Lion from "The Wizard of Oz." But Jackson had courage in abundance: "He was a real brave kid," said Jim Cassos, a classmate from Worcester Boys Trade High School.
At a memorial here Thursday that drew 20,000 firefighters from as far as Australia and Ireland, as well as President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, Jackson and five fellow firefighters who died here one week ago were remembered in equal measures for their courage and their compassion. Thomas Spencer, Paul Brotherton, James Lyons, Jeremiah Lucey, Joseph McGuirk and Jackson were killed when they entered a burning warehouse in search of a homeless couple believed to be living there.
"They hastened to the dreadful place to save others," said Clinton, quoting from an essay by Benjamin Franklin, and noting, "He might have written it last week, not 2 1/2 centuries ago."
Along with the vice president, Clinton met privately with relatives of the six victims. Clinton urged all Americans to thank those working for the public in their own communities.
So often, firefighting is a family affair. Collectively, for example, the family of Joseph McGuirk has given more than 200 years to the craft of putting out fires. But even when not related by blood or marriage, firefighters eat together, work together, live together--and sometimes, die together. Most of the firefighters who converged from places like Los Angeles on this industrial-era city of 170,000, 30 miles west of Boston, had never met the victims of the Worcester Cold Storage blaze. But wearing crisp uniforms and grim expressions, they spoke of them as brothers.
"Every firefighter is an individual, and in many ways we're all different," said Alfred K. Whitehead, president of the International Assn. of Fire Fighters. "But when it comes to our profession, we're all very much the same."
As befits a clannish profession, firefighters have powerful rituals. In kilts and high hats that made them seem 12 feet tall, dozens of bagpipers performed traditional hymns of mourning, and drummers from firefighters' bands twirled their batons in dramatic tribute to their brethren.
As half a dozen speakers tried to make sense of the tragedy, no mention was made of Thomas S. Levesque, 37, or his 19-year-old girlfriend, Julie Ann Barnes, who authorities say started the fatal fire when they kicked over a candle during an argument. Both were living in the warehouse and have been charged with manslaughter.
Tall and skinny, with deep, sunken cheeks, Levesque is well known on the streets here and at the city's Public Inebriate Program, or PIP. Sometimes he does manual labor, but illiteracy limits his employment options. In recent months, he often has been seen in the company of Barnes, a 10th-grade dropout who wears a vacant expression--something close to a smile--and usually had been seen cradling a kitten. Frequently, the pair had quarreled in public.
When she stopped by a convenience store Friday night, a videotape captured Barnes fretting to a clerk about losing her clothing and her pets in the fire that continues to smolder a week later.
Levesque, who has two brothers in jail for murder and one recently released for robbery, boasted at the homeless shelter last weekend about setting the fire, authorities said. "None of us believed him," said Mike Wallace, another PIP habitue. "We thought he was just talking."
Worcester Dist. Atty. John J. Conte said Levesque and Barnes attempted to put out the blaze with a pillow. When that caught fire, they tried to save their pets, then headed to a nearby mall to listen to music.
On the street as Thursday's procession marched by, Don Frabotta, an actor who for 20 years played Dave the bartender on "Days of Our Lives," lauded the firefighters for trying to save Barnes and Levesque.
"They were doing their job," said Frabotta, who moved home to Worcester from Los Angeles three years ago. "They thought there were people in there, and whether they were homeless people or whatever people didn't matter."
"That's the beauty of it," agreed Charles Cook, a food service worker here. "They didn't stop to make a value judgment. We should celebrate that."
Carrying a homemade banner that read, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Dottie Borbone said she hoped the arrest of Barnes and Levesque would not lead to a backlash against homeless people.
"We don't know their circumstances," said Borbone, whose son, Jon, goes to school with the children of Thomas Spencer. Then she said, "I'm trying to be compassionate, even though I'm not really feeling it. What I'm feeling is anger that this had to happen at all."