The tone of the late-night phone message from his brother was all Denis Leary needed to hear to know that his cousin was probably dead.
The man Leary described as a “warrior” had rushed into a burning warehouse with five other firefighters in Worcester and hadn’t come out. Smoke was still pouring from the building when Leary clicked on the TV after he got the message the next morning.
“They were just considered missing at that point, but it was pretty obvious from the get-go that nobody was coming out,” he said.
The December 1999 death of Jeremiah Lucey, then the deaths of hundreds of firefighters two years later on Sept. 11, sparked a passion in the Emmy Award-nominated actor-comedian to fight for funding for a group he says is largely overlooked for all its heroics.
Since it was founded six years ago, the Leary Firefighter Foundation has raised $7 million for equipment and training for firefighters in New Orleans, New York, Worcester and Boston, in part through special events like his annual celebrity hockey game. On Tuesday, Leary was in Boston to donate a $250,000 fire boat to the city department.
“This is his passion,” said fellow comedian Lenny Clarke, a friend of Leary’s for 27 years. “This guy believes in this entirely. In every aspect of his life, there’s a chunk of it that is dedicated to the firefighters and to helping the firefighters.”
‘Denis Leary is legit’
Leary, who plays a New York City firefighter on the FX television series “Rescue Me,” met with numerous Boston firefighters Tuesday, showing none of the intense, frenetic style that characterizes his professional persona, apart from the pace with which he sucked down cigarettes.
He gave out handshakes and hugs to any firefighter who wanted them, and signed whatever they tossed in front of him.
Boston Firefighter Scott Salman said Leary’s sincerity is obvious.
“It does boost our morale and it makes the public more aware,” he said. “I believe it is from his heart.”
Commissioner Kevin MacCurtain said that as time passes since Sept. 11, more people forget the needs of firefighters. Leary’s efforts remind them, he said.
“Denis Leary is legit, he’s honest, he’s passionately involved in assisting firefighters,” he said. “All firefighters need help wherever they can get it.”
Growing up in Worcester, Leary had no special affinity with firefighters or their jobs. His cousin’s consistent complaints about a lack of equipment or training also had little effect.
“It wasn’t until he died that it sort of dawned on me that being a celebrity, I could do something to help,” he said.
Celebrating a warrior
Lucey was supposed to be off the night of the fire at the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse building but was covering a shift for a friend. He’d also switched out of rescue-truck driving duties so he could go into a building if necessary.
“He was very much a warrior about it,” Leary said.
There were no people inside the warehouse when Lucey went in — a homeless couple that started the fire had already escaped. The firefighters weren’t as fortunate, becoming trapped in the virtually windowless building as it filled with smoke.
After the fire, Leary’s efforts to help were aimed at restoring the city department and helping the 17 kids left fatherless.
The foundation ratcheted up its efforts after Sept. 11, 2001, spurred by the scope of the tragedy and his close friendship with New York City firefighter Terry Quinn, who survived the attack and is now a consultant on “Rescue Me.”
Firefighters often are hailed after tragedies but are quickly forgotten, Leary said. He noted with irritation that no memorial yet exists in New York at the World Trade Center site for those who died on Sept. 11. “There’s an empty pit,” he said.
In Worcester, memory of the fire has already receded, he said.
“In the politicians’ minds it doesn’t even exist anymore,” he said.
Part of it is the nature of firefighting, where the men and women themselves have to forget their calls so they can move onto the next one, he said. But Leary also believes it’s because the importance of a firefighter’s job makes it impossible for them to strike, and easier to ignore during budget time.
Leary plans to keep paying attention.
“We all know something happens when you call 911, who the first people who come and help you are going to be,” he said.