April 2, 2017

Editorial: Plans for fire museum on track, deserve support

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Union Station

In Worcester, the word “fire” brings two things immediately to mind: pain and pride.

It will be interesting to see the ways the Worcester Fire Museum and Education Center put both on display.

The project is still in the planning stage, but those plans have proceeded smoothly since then-Fire Chief Gerard Dio broached the idea in 2014. The museum is on track to open in 2018 in leased space at Union Station, according to Worcester Fire Department Capt. Gary Fleischer of the Worcester Historical Fire Society, a nonprofit formed two years ago and tasked with creating the museum.

As MassLive reported, the group marched in the Worcester County St. Patrick’s Parade three weeks ago, showing off the kinds of antique trucks and well-used gear that have been warehoused and will, with any luck, get new life as exhibits in an attractive downtown space.

Part of the museum’s mission is to educate visitors about fire prevention. Also planned for the 4,000-square-foot quarters on Union Station’s ground floor is a 90-seat meeting room — which could be used, for instance, for presentations to area schoolchildren on field trips — and office space for the WFD’s Public Education Division.

Organizers are launching a membership drive this month. The museum is also seeking contributions from individuals and grant providers.

Fleischer told the Sun on Friday that the donation drive, which kicked off at the parade, has collected about $5,000 of an estimated $500,000 needed to wire, paint, install heating and air conditioning, and otherwise ready the undeveloped space at Union Station for the museum.

Information about the museum, including how to purchase a membership or make a donation, is on the museum’s website.

While the city will not be paying for the museum-related construction, a serious water leak at Union Station must be addressed first. That $6 million project is the responsibility of the Worcester Redevelopment Authority, which has owned the station since its refurbishment in the late 1990s, and operates it at an annual loss.

The WRA’s Union Station budget is supplemented year after year by non-repaid loans from the city. That has caused some in recent months to call for the station to be privatized. The Sun, however, agrees with City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. that the civic importance of the station is paramount.

Augustus told the WRA’s board over the winter that “the success and value of Union Station cannot be measured solely by a balance sheet,” and added: “Besides being an iconic building, Union Station is a symbolic representation of Worcester’s past, present and future.”

The WRA’s decision, earlier this year, to allow the Worcester Fire Museum and Education Center to be housed in Union Station fits in with the vision we believe many in Worcester hold of a building valuable beyond the balance sheet. While the refurbished old train station isn’t a hub for travelers the way it once was, it still draws the eye and stirs the imagination.

With the museum’s arrival, the station will draw visitors — including children, who will love the experience. Something that will never change is the thrill and curiosity of the young when it comes to heroes rushing to the rescue.

The museum organizers have decades of firefighting equipment and lore to bring out and use to tell the city’s firefighting story. But the standout, indelible moment in that history arrived at 6:13 p.m. Dec. 3, 1999, when the first alarm sounded concerning a blaze at the abandoned Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building on Franklin Street.

There are no words still for that shocking stretch of days. Exhausted workers chipped at the smouldering rubble around the clock, and one by one brought out the bodies of six fellow firefighters. Our city and entire region will never forget the six who perished, nor the rest whose lives were changed forever.

The men had become trapped in the maze-like structure while searching for a homeless pair believed to be living inside, but who had run off after accidentally starting the blaze with a candle.

A block or so away, under the roiling smoke stood gleaming Union Station, complete with its two new white towers. It was in the final stages of a $32 million restoration that brought the 1911 structure beautifully back from ruin.

As it does in any city, fire has created countless tragedies and challenges across Worcester’s history. But that one stands as surely the worst Worcester fire that will ever happen. The Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. blaze created a special bond between the city and its firefighters, and helped make the city a respected leader in modern firefighting and prevention techniques.

We wish this venture success.

The proposed fire museum is an outgrowth of the increasing belief and investment in the city’s downtown of the last two decades. It will enliven Union Station and inform visitors about Worcester’s unique firefighting history and public safety in general. And its location, in the shadow of 1999’s tragedy, will add a new dimension to that memory and story.

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