Nearly one year ago, Peabody firefighter James Rice paid the ultimate price on the job, and for that he will forever be a hero.
Just two days before Christmas last year, Rice, an 11-year veteran of the department, was one of the first crews to the scene of a three-alarm fire at a multi-family home at 5 Hancock St. With smoke showing from the second floor of the building, Rice was one of the firefighters charged with carrying hose lines to all three floors and searching for any occupants inside.
Heavy smoke and flames forced firefighters out of the building, but Rice became trapped inside and collapsed between the first and second floors.
He was located inside an apartment by another officer and carried outside. . He was 42 and left behind his wife Amy and three young children: Alyssa, Katelyn and Ryan.
Amy Rice shared the stage with Gov. Deval Patrick, Fire Marshal Stephen Coan and other officials Tuesday morning during the 2012 Firefighter of the Year Awards at Mechanics Hall in Worcester to receive the highest distinction granted to a firefighter -- the Medal of Honor.
A second Medal of Honor was given to the family of Worcester firefighter Jon Davies, who died just two weeks before Rice on Dec. 8, 2011. During the ceremony, 72 firefighters from 15 cities and towns were recognized for their heroic acts.
The honor guards for the Peabody and Worcester fire departments led the procession that morning into Mechanics Hall. Amy Rice was escorted by Fire Capt. Jay Dowling, a close friend of her late husband's.
“On behalf of the Commonwealth, we thank all the firefighters, their families and loved ones for their service and courage to keep us safe,” said Gov. Patrick. “We appreciate, honor and value your sacrifices and selflessness in the face of danger.”
"Last December, the Commonwealth lost two brave firefighters from Peabody and Worcester,” said Lt. Gov. Tim Murray. "Today, we pay tribute to those brave men and their families, and honor all of the heroic men and women of the fire service who go above and beyond the call of duty to protect our communities."
“All it takes is one time... One time to go out, a small, innocent fire and they don’t come home,” Amy Rice told a CBS Boston reporter.
'Medal of Valor'
Five other Peabody firefighters were also honored Tuesday in Worcester, one of them cited for pulling Rice from that burning building.
Deputy Chief Eric Harrison, who was a captain last December, received a Medal of Valor for his actions.
A report of that fire, read during Tuesday's ceremony, said that after learning Rice was trapped inside, Harrison and his crew raced up the stairs, following the hose line past several other crews who were held at bay by heavy smoke and fire.
Harrison, then "without regard for his own safety" left the hose line to search the second floor for Rice. He found him, unresponsive, and carried Rice around obstacles back outside to waiting firefighters.
The third award for Peabody firefighters was for "Meritorious Conduct." That went to Capt. Dale Kimball and firefighters Stephen Pellegrini, Paul LaPlante and Paul Rheaume for their heroic save of a Peabody teen from a fiery car wreck that same month, just two weeks earlier.
The report read Tuesday recounts how a teen had crashed his car into the side of a West Peabody home around 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 11. The four firefighters were the first crew on the scene and immediately set to work on the house, but after finding no one inside and extinguishing the exterior flames, they learned someone might still be trapped in the vehicle.
Using a pencil ladder, Kimball and Pellegrini climbed up over the burning vehicle while Rheaume kept the water and foam on the flaming wreckage. Kimball then broke the passenger window and saw that the teen was trapped, but alive. Kimball, Pellegrini and LaPlante then all reached inside to pull him to safety, without regard for their own.
“Firefighting is one of the most honorable professions. Day in and day out, firefighters answer the call without regard to their personal safety,” said Public Safety and Security Secretary Mary Elizabeth Heffernan on Tuesday. “I want to recognize their bravery and sacrifice, and thank them for always going above and beyond to keep us safe.”