The Boston Bruins’ Saturday night clash with the Washington Capitals had added meaning for Worcester.
The contest was expected to feature a combined honor guard of Worcester EMS personnel, firefighters and police. The Bruins were also holding a 50/50 raffle whose proceeds will be donated to the family of Worcester Fire Lt. Jason Menard. The winner of the raffle will be announced at the start of the third period of tonight’s game.
The 39-year-old Menard, a married father of three who was planning to fly out Wednesday for a Disney vacation with his family, instead died while battling a fire in a three-decker on Stockholm Street earlier that morning. He died a hero, saving the life of at least two fellow firefighters: one he guided to a stairway, the other he pushed out a third-floor window as flames started to overtake them.
That firefighter, Chris Pace, was injured in the fall, but lived. His family has said Pace would not be alive were it not for Menard.
Now, on Monday, the city will bury Menard, the ninth Worcester firefighter to die while battling a fire since 1999.
Menard’s death comes less than a year after the Dec. 9, 2018 loss of firefighter Christopher Roy, who died in a fire on Lovell Street. That tragedy came just hours after the Worcester Fire Department observed the anniversary of the Dec. 8, 2011 death of firefighter Jon Davies Sr. in a fire on Arlington Street. In 1999, Lt. Thomas Spencer, Lt. James Lyons and firefighters Paul Brotherton, Timothy Jackson, Jeremiah Lucey and Joseph McGuirk died while battling a ferocious blaze at the former Worcester Cold Storage building. They have come to be known as the “Worcester Six.”
Tonight’s Bruins game is but one display of support being shown by many toward Menard’s family and the Worcester Fire Department. There have been flowers, food and other items brought to the McKeon Road Fire Station, where Menard served with Ladder 5. Several groups and organizations have stepped up to raise money for his family. There have been efforts to solicit gift cards from area businesses to help the family as well. And the New York-based organization Tunnels2Towers is raising money to help Menard’s family pay off their mortgage.
The 50/50 raffle for the Bruins game had raised more than $50,000 as of early Saturday night.
“Some of the stuff you can’t put into words, how much that’s appreciated by everybody that puts on the uniform, to know the support is there when something like this happens,” said Worcester Fire Lt. Chris Bishop, who went through the fire academy with Menard and joined the department with him in 2010, of the outpouring of support. “Something terrible brings out the best in humanity. We’ve seen it time and again.”
The Bruins held a 50/50 raffle last year for Roy’s family. Bishop recalls that effort raised more than $100,000.
It just so happens that two members of the honor guard at tonight’s game also play hockey for the Worcester Fire Department. Bishop is a member of that team, although he is not with the honor guard. According to Worcester Fire Department spokesman Martin Dyer, the combined honor guard will include Keith Halverson and Dave Anger from the Fire Department, Chris Cutliffe and Bill Toomey from the Police Department, and John Bain from EMS.
While he will not take part in tonight’s ceremony, the 35-year-old Bishop will be there in spirit. While he ended up working in a different company than Menard, and did not see him often through is professional duties, Bishop remembers him well.
“He always had a great enthusiasm for the job. He lived it, breathed it, like a lot of the rest of us do,” Bishop said. “He was a big, huge family man. From what I know of him, having come on to the department with him, it was pretty clear his family was the most important thing to him.”
Bishop recalled a colleague who worked hard and was “always looking out for the guys in his crew and the class.”
The entire group, Bishop said, was “pretty tight-knit.” There were 40 recruits in the class, 39 from Worcester. The one outsider was from Natick – and he is no longer considered an outsider. In fact, that classmate, Chris Mix, who is now a lieutenant with the Natick Fire Department, was invited to Menard’s funeral services.
“He said he’d be honored,” Bishop said of Mix. “I think [Mix and Menard] may have actually been in the same crew. We divided up into crews for training evolutions. I think it was alphabetically.”
Reached by phone Saturday night, Mix said Menard sat in front of him during classes in the academy.
“He was probably one of the first guys that talked to me,” he said, adding he remembered Menard as “a family guy through and through.”
Bishop is not surprised to see a sports team step up in a time of need for the Fire Department.
“The [Worcester] Railers last year stepped right up with $5,000 from their foundation [for Roy],” he said. “Now we have the Red Sox in town. It seems like they always put the community first.”
In fact, hours before the fire that claimed Menard’s life, Worcester Red Sox President Dr. Charles Steinberg and city officials had gathered Tuesday at the Grove Street Fire Station, where he announced the team would retire the No. 6 in honor of the Worcester Six. In addition, the team said it would reserve eight tickets for each game in honor of those six firefighters as well as Davies and Roy.
And then tragedy struck the Fire Department once more. Bishop admitted the job he loves so much has grown harder to do with each loss of a colleague.
“It gets a little harder when stuff like this happens, especially repeatedly,” he said. “There’s very few days I don’t love coming to work, and today doesn’t really … it’s just your mind is elsewhere. When you come here, you want to be fully focused, and it’s just hard.”
“I think everybody’s kind of in the same boat,” Bishop continued. “There’s just so many emotions. It’s hard to put into words. Disbelief. It’s hard to find the words right now. Eventually, it gets easier as time goes on, but you start to wonder.
“That’s also part of the doubt. I wanted this job since I was 5. If I had known how many people I was going to bury, I don’t know if I would have taken it.”
Direct donations to the Menard Children’ Fund may be made here.