Rice Remembered as True Hero, Friend Who Gave Life His All
Thousands of mourners, including firefighters from across the country, gathered in Downtown Peabody Friday morning to pay their last respects to Firefighter James Rice.
The city turned out en masse Friday morning to remember fallen Peabody Firefighter James Rice, who died in the line of duty Dec. 23, just one week earlier.
Rice, 42, was killed fighting a three-alarm house fire at 5 Hancock St. He leaves behind his wife Amy and their three children: Alyssa, Katelyn and Ryan.
It was a somber scene along Lowell Street -- the only audible sounds among the several thousand people and firefighters lining either side of the street those of camera shutters clicking and helicopters circling overhead.
A hundred or so bagpipers and drummers broke the silence, beginning began to play as the funeral procession entered Peabody Square just before 9:30 a.m.
Firefighters held their salute as the procession passed by underneath a giant American flag suspended on either side by a ladder truck -- Peabody's old Ladder 1 and Engine 1 from the Danvers Fire Department.
Engine 5 (Rice's unit) carried his casket atop the truck, accompanied by most of the Peabody Fire Department on foot, an honor guard from the Police Department, the city's new aerial ladder truck (Ladder 1), the new Engine 4 and several official vehicles carrying family members and dignitaries.
Once the motorcade entered Peabody Square, many more firefighters joined in the procession.
Rice was a parishioner at St. Vasilios Greek Orthodox Church, but due to ongoing renovations at the church, the funeral was held at St. John the Baptist instead. The service still followed a traditional Orthodox funeral.
Marching in front of Engine 5 and carrying Rice's helmet was colleague and lifelong friend Fire Capt. Jay Dowling. On either side of Dowling were Lt. Scott Paturelli and Anarndo Texieria, both stationed with Engine 5 and who were with Rice at his last alarm.
Along both sides of Engine 5, Peabody firefighters acted as pallbearers, grabbing onto the sides of the truck.
The procession turned up School Street and entered the church from the rear, where it was met with another large crowd of mourners, firefighters and police officers at attention outside the front of the church.
A number of Peabody firefighters helped unload Rice's casket off the truck and climb the stairs to the sanctuary, allowing the funeral service to begin promptly at 10 a.m.
Area departments covered each of Peabody's five stations to allow the entire department to attend the funeral.
Officiating the service as the Chief Celebrant was Metropolitan Methodios. He acknowledged the thousands thronging the city streets to pay their respects to Rice, saying the crowds were full of "people who loved [Rice]."
He, along with the others who eulogized Rice, all turned to the Gospel of John in their remarks, saying that the firefighter performed the greatest act of love by laying down his life for his friends.
"That was etched in [Rice's] soul...even those people at 5 Hancock St. -- he didn't know them, but they were his friends," Methodios said.
"What Jim did last Friday was truly heroic," he said, but added that he's sure Rice and his colleagues would simply respond that it was their duty.
"In this 'me' generation...it's times like these that I thank God for men like Jim Rice," he said.
Rice's father, Brian McKenna-Rice, spoke about watching a child grow and mature to adulthood, all the while slowly seeing that parental bond change, and no longer being able to protect the child from all harm.
"You begin to realize that the child is no longer yours anymore, but belongs to other people...and the universe," he said.
"There is a giant hole in our hearts," he said, which had previously been filled with the presence of his son. He described Rice as a loyal, trusted friend, firefighter, father, son, brother and grandson.
"He deeply loved his family; he lived every moment for his children," McKenna-Rice said.
He admitted that such tragedies can cause a person's faith to waver, and that he and other family members may "never heal completely" from such a "senseless" tragedy, but he said that it's also because of reliance on that faith that a person can come to terms with the pain.
"I know that someday in the future I will be reunited with my son," he said. "This outpouring of support is not because Jim died, but because he lived."
Both McKenna-Rice and Fire Chief Steve Pasdon's voices were filled with emotion as they spoke of Rice.
Pasdon said he struggled with how to speak to the family and his firefighters with any words of consolation at Rice's death.
"I thought, 'What words could I possibly say that could make sense of this tragedy or bring comfort,'" Pasdon said. "I realized I couldn't say anything [that would]."
Instead, he decided to remember Rice for who he was.
Pasdon said he first met Rice in 2001 when Rice joined the department. After graduating from the Mass. Fire Academy that June -- Rice was one of the first groups from Peabody to undergo the training -- Pasdon came to know Rice as a "man of integrity and honor," he said.
"He loved being a firefighter, but also his family," Pasdon said. "He performed all his duties without complaining...humbly," and a smile never far from his face.
"Please know we will get through this time," Pasdon said to his firefighters. When officers at the scene realized Rice was missing from the group -- he became trapped in a stairway -- they quickly and efficiently rescued him from flames inside the building, Pasdon said. "Please take comfort in that."
He said he likewise wonders if there wasn't something -- anything -- he could have done differently, but knows there was nothing he could have done to prevent the tragedy.
"Fires can be so unpredictable... Remember, it could have been any one of you that gave [their] all," Pasdon said.
He said he relies on his Christian faith to make some sense of the tragedy, referring to scriptural passages addressing life and death being under divine ordination.
He ended his remarks quoting a poem about a mother's attempt to describe to her son his father's call to duty. The poem is entitled, "Remembering a Firefighter."
Dowling remembered Rice as a "loving husband, father, son and devoted friend and colleague" -- someone who was "loyal" and "compassionate."
"Jim was a family man and that was the most important part of his life," Dowling said. Rice married his best friend (Amy) in 1995 and regarded it as one of the happiest days of his life, according to Dowling.
Dowling said Rice told him his life was just beginning to start then. "He was so proud of his kids."
Dowling noted the two men were like brothers, except for the blood relationship, sharing life together over the years from softball and the Patriots to hanging out and being involved in each other's lives.
"On Dec. 23, Jim went to work that day [ready for duty]...he made the supreme sacrifice," Dowling said. "It is our Christian hope that when he opens his eyes again, Christ will welcome him to eternal life."
"We will continue to respond to calls with Jim in our hearts," Dowling said.
Mayor Michael Bonfanti pointed out that his office is only about 100 feet across the street from Fire Headquarters and he has spent many a day watching the department train or in action at the scene of a fire over the past 10 years. Bonfanti said he has been at nearly every major fire in that time.
"I have watched in awe and admiration," Bonfanti said, noting how they often have to deal with chaotic situations.
"There are few guarantees in life, but one is that when the alarm goes off our firefighters will respond. They will be there when needed," he said. "I know, every firefighter's family knows, that every call is dangerous."
"The greatest compliment I can give to Jim Rice is that he was a firefighter," Bonfanti said, emphasizing the last word.
St. Vasilios' pastor Christopher Foustoukos addressed his remarks mainly to Rice's children.
"He's a hero for risking his life," Foustoukos said -- for going into a burning building and trying save lives and property.
Foustoukos gave each of Rice's children a teddy bear during the ceremony, because he said, in a way, the stuffed dolls reminded him of firefighters in full gear. He remarked that he went to Boston with Rice's family to retrieve his body after the autopsy was conducted and that these "big puffy guys were all standing alongside the road, saluting your dad."
He also shared a story with them, which he said helped him as a young child deal with a similar loss. The meaning of the tale was clear: Rice had "fully bloomed" in his 42 years on earth and God had called him home.
"Whenever you have a problem, you call these firefighters, you call Dad's good friend, Jay. I don't think you could ever had a better brother than Jay," Foustoukos said, remarking how Rice's other engine mates also rallied around his family since last Friday.
"I pray that this brings you some peace in Christ in the days forward," he said.
Before the close of the service, the firefighters' union president Russell Lewis explained the significance behind ringing the alarm bell in three sets of five.
Lewis said the strategies and equipment involved in firefighting change over the years, but the goal remains the same: "to save lives and protect property, sometimes at terrible cost."
He said the bell is part of tradition; it is rung whenever there is an alarm and also when the fire has been put out -- it is also sounded "when a comrade passes away."
"It's a symbol of honor and respect for those who gave so much," Lewis said.
The sanctuary was then filled with the sharp peals of the bell, rung by Deputy Chief Joseph Daly.
Back outside, after everyone had filed back into line and Rice's casket was loaded atop Engine 5 once again, the procession looped out to Foster Street and back through the square up Lowell Street to Cedar Grove Cemetery.
Again, thousands of mourners lined either side of the street.
The burial was open only to family and firefighters.