1-alarm horror; Florence St. fire haunts first on scene.


Byline: Bronislaus B. Kush

WORCESTER - Over a 32-year career, former Worcester Fire Lt. Joseph A. Casello faced horrors most only imagine in nightmares that take time to forget because they are so frighteningly vivid.

He fought countless fires that cruelly took lives and left behind deep, wrenching heartbreak for the survivors.

"Over the years, I put a lot of people in body bags," said Mr. Casello, who retired from firefighting because of a knee injury. "When you're a firefighter, you see a lot of things. You just learn to move on."

Mr. Casello said he's never let a fire gnaw at his thoughts, except the relatively small blaze that occurred 20 years ago this morning at 21 Florence St.

"It was a two-cent fire," said Mr. Casello, recounting the events of March 7, 1990. "We went in and had that fire out in minutes. It was a textbook case of how to do the job. It was just like the way they teach you in training."

Mr. Casello said he and Firefighter Thomas Kennedy, their jobs finished, had just left the burned first-floor apartment of the three-decker, when somebody inside yelled, "there's a body in here."

Shortly after, two paramedics flew from the wooden structure, each holding a very small, limp body.

"We were feeling really good about knocking down that fire. It was just like we had won the gold medal," said Mr. Casello, who lives on Brattle Street. "Turns out we won the battle, not the war."

Responding firefighters did not realize the horrific enormity of the single-alarm fire until they began "mop-up operations."

The seemingly innocuous fire had snuffed out the lives of Ethel F. Baisden, 28, and her children - David, 2, Frances, 3, and 7-month-old Paul.

Mrs. Baisden and her two oldest offspring were found snuggled together in a bedroom adjoining the living room, where the fire had started and was extinguished. Baby Paul was discovered in the living room.

Firefighters had walked around and over his body, thinking, for the longest time, that the infant was a charred doll. The others were later determined to have died from smoke inhalation.

Mr. Casello said he still has questions about the fire and wonders whether he and the other firefighters, who were the first on the scene, should have done a better job of searching the flat.

He said five years of counseling and continuous contemplation have not provided any answers.

The Park Avenue Fire Station was between shifts when the claxon sounded at 7:57 a.m., signaling "a reported structure fire"...

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