PORTLAND, Maine — Jane Walsh was 12 when, in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, 1945, she took a life-altering phone call.
“The woman on the phone said, ‘Is this the home of Thomas Walsh?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘He’s been killed in a fire,’” Walsh, now Nichols, recalled Friday morning. “I can still hear her words. It’s raw. It’s still raw.”
Thomas Walsh was 39 and a private with the Portland Fire Department when, shortly after 2 a.m., an explosion at a three-alarm fire at the Stevens Avenue Armory caused a brick wall to collapse on top of him.
“It’s been 66 years,” Nichols told the Bangor Daily News. “But it was just yesterday.”
Jane was joined Friday by her sisters, Mary Lou Eaton, who was 10 back in 1945, and Thomasina Cole, with whom their mother was seven months pregnant when Private Walsh died. They gathered among more than 100 current and former firefighters, corporate sponsors, family members and friends for the ceremonial groundbreaking of a new memorial honoring the 20 known Portland firefighters who died in the line of duty.
“They were expecting their father to come home in the morning, but he never did,” retired firefighter and department historian Michael Daicy said of the Walsh sisters.
“It’s a unique person who answers this call to public service,” Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones said during prepared remarks at the ceremony. “As this memorial shows, this line of duty can and will take the ultimate toll.”
The names on the to-be-built memorial begin with Thomas Burnham, who died in 1903 from burns suffered in a fire at Sturdivant’s Wharf. Burnham, who was 68 at the time, retired from the department 25 years earlier, but returned to service at the wharf to help his former station mates one last time.
The most recent name listed is that of Frank Cowan, who was 44 when he suffered a heart attack fighting a fire at a Congress Street restaurant, then died in 1993 after a second heart attack at home in the aftermath.
The Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial will consist of a brick walkway, two engraved benches and an etched black marble monument located near the main station at 380 Congress St., where four previous firehouses have stood dating back to 1861, when a two-story wooden schoolhouse was renovated to accommodate two engines.
The memorial, which is due to be completed by next spring, was first proposed by then-Deputy Chief Larry Libby and carried out by a committee led by current Deputy Chief David Jackson. Money was raised for the project through donations by local businesses, representatives of which were on hand Friday to hold golden shovels for the ceremonial groundbreaking. Other speakers Friday included Portland Fire Chief Frederick LaMontagne and Lt. John Brooks, president of Local 740 of the International Association of Firefighters.
“It’s exciting for us to see this project come to fruition,” Jackson told those in attendance, “but solemn because of what this really means.”