Dennis Budd was chief during the Worcester Cold Storage & Warehouse Co. fire on Dec. 3, 1999, that killed six firefighters.
WORCESTER — Retired Fire Chief Dennis L. Budd, who led the department through its darkest days in December 1999, has died.
He was 72. His daughter, Laura McElroy, said Thursday he died suddenly Wednesday in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. He and his wife of 51 years, Nancy Budd, had been splitting their time between Mashpee and Englewood, Florida, but had been staying in Chester Springs while he battled cancer. He had been diagnosed in February and had come to Pennsylvania for treatment, McElroy said, but had recently developed other health issues.
Budd also leaves another daughter, Sarah Schreirer, along with seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
Budd was chief during the Worcester Cold Storage & Warehouse Co. fire on Dec. 3, 1999, that killed six firefighters. Firefighters initially entered the vacant warehouse thinking a homeless couple was inside, and became trapped in the labyrinthine building. Budd retired less than a year later at 52. His daughter said the fire took an emotional toll on her father.
“It was traumatic,” McElroy said. “It stayed with him for the rest of his life. He really suffered those losses. He didn’t leave the site until the last person was found.”
The son of a firefighter, Budd was born in Worcester, and grew up on Butler Street in Quinsigamond Village. He met Nancy while the two went to South High School together, and he served in the Air Force in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969.
His 28-year career started just after he got back from Vietnam, on Engine 1, in the former firehouse across from the DCU Center. When he retired in 2000, he vividly recalled his first call, for a fire in an apartment building at 86 Green St. Two people died in that early-morning fire; he was assigned to attack the fire at the back of the building, where the fire was heaviest. He said at the time he appreciated the camaraderie the job offered.
“The guy who takes the hydrant does the same work as the chief,” he told a reporter at the time. “We all are in the fire service and have the same goals. We’re just in different positions. Anybody that wants to stay a firefighter for 30 years, I say God bless him. We all fight fires. We save lives. We have the same focus. That’s what the fire department is and on December 3rd, you could see that, not only in the Worcester firefighters but in all the firefighters who came to assist us and later all who came from around the world … This is the best family I’ve ever been associated with.”
McElroy said her father was a “loving brother” to all his fellow firefighters.
“He absolutely loved his job,” McElroy said. “He made it to the top of the ranks in the Fire Department, that’s what he always wished for.”
Deputy Fire Chief John Powers came on in the early 1990s a few years after Budd took over leadership of the department in 1988. The city was on shaky financial ground, Powers said; he was among 50 firefighters laid off at the time, and stations were being closed. He said Budd offered steady leadership through that period, which is something he doesn’t get a lot of credit for.
Powers knew Budd well and knew how much he loved Nancy. But he also knew Budd as a skilled firefighter, who skipped over the deputy ranks and went straight from district chief to chief of the department. He said Budd was an “unbelievably great guy,” who was very active and who got along well with the rank-and-file.
“Underneath that mustache of his, he had a great smile,” Powers said.
He said Budd was an avid skier and golfer who, like Powers, lived near Green Hill Municipal Golf Course. Powers said Budd would often wake up early to try to get nine holes in before going to work. He was also a cyclist, and Powers remembered the chief catching some heat after a crash at the corner of Millbrook Street and Gold Star Boulevard.
“He was an extremely active guy,” Powers said.
The warehouse fire was tough on everybody in the department, Budd included. But Powers said Budd did a fantastic job under incredible stress.
“He just kept himself together to keep the department together,” Powers said. “He just showed strength through the whole thing, which is what a leader does.”
McElroy said her father’s funeral arrangements are still being ironed out, but said the family is working with Mercadante Funeral Home.