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Homeless couple charged in deaths of firefighters

Published Dec. 8, 1999|Updated Sep. 30, 2005

A homeless couple who allegedly knocked over a candle during an argument were charged with involuntary manslaughter Tuesday in connection with the warehouse fire that killed six firefighters.

Thomas S. Levesque, 37, and Julie S. Barnes, 19, had been living together on the second floor of the abandoned warehouse for several months, District Attorney John J. Conte said. The blaze started Friday night when they allegedly knocked over a candle.

The fire ignited clothing and papers, Conte said. The couple tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire and rescue their dog and cat, he said, before they fled the warehouse. They made no attempt to report the fire, Conte said.

Two firefighters went into the building after reports that squatters had been living there. When the firefighters became lost in thick smoke and radioed "Mayday, Mayday," four other firefighters tried to find them. All six died.

Levesque and Barnes were arraigned on six counts each of involuntary manslaughter and ordered held on $1-million bail. Manslaughter carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

Fire Chief Dennis Budd said he had no time for anger.

"I feel grief right now and I don't have any room for that," Budd said. "One more piece of the puzzle has been eliminated."

Nicole Witherbee, policy coordinator for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said the couple didn't intend to hurt anyone and arresting them was wrong.

"We make laws all the time, they can't panhandle, they can't loiter, we don't have enough shelter beds, so when they go into abandoned buildings it's trespassing," she said. "So where is it they're supposed to be?"

The warehouse fire was thought to be the nation's deadliest blaze for firefighters since 1994, when 14 firefighters perished in a forest fire in Colorado.

Only one of the bodies has been found, and firefighters labored for a fourth day Tuesday to find the remains of the others in the ruins of the five-story brick warehouse. Fire crews from around the state manned Worcester fire houses to free the city's firefighters for the search.

Treacherous conditions, including persistent flames, thick smoke and collapsing walls, made the search dangerous and difficult.

President Clinton planned to attend a memorial service Thursday for the men at the Worcester Centrum.

Mayor Raymond V. Mariano said children would be dismissed from school and expected to write an essay on the importance of public service.

"Heroes are not individuals who bounce basketballs or hit baseballs in front of thousands of screaming fans," Mariano said. Children "need to understand heroes are average men and women who reach out unselfishly to help those in need."

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