Minutes later, there was an explosion. Then possibly another. Firefighters outside the apartment house raced inside to rescue their colleagues.
Three firefighters, blinded by smoke, followed their hose to a basement stairwell, from which they were pulled to safety. But 31-year-old McNamara, a father of two with another child due this month, never made it to the stairwell. His body was recovered a short time later.
As Lancaster, a small Central Massachusetts town of 7,400, mourned its first death of a firefighter, Clinton firefighter John McLaughlin was listed in serious condition at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.
Clinton firefighters Edward McNamara (no relation) and Terrence Parker, who also went into the basement, were taken to Clinton Hospital, where they were treated for exhaustion and released.
"Marty was the kind of son that every father and mother would ever want," said his father, Martin McNamara. "He was a loving father, husband. I guess the only consolation we can take from it is that he died doing something that he loved to do."
"We were in Worcester, you know," said Lancaster firefighter Pat Goodwin, referring to the 1999 warehouse fire that killed six firefighters. "We were there. It was that same feeling I never wanted to feel again. It's unbelievable. All I can think about is this guy's family. God bless them. Our prayers are with them."
By daybreak, the 150-year-old multi-unit home lay in ruins, after all the residents escaped safely from the 3:40 a.m. blaze.
State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said investigators had not determined the cause of the fire. The home was heated by a natural gas furnace, and residents reported waking up to the sound of "a boom." However, Coan said the blaze may have started prior to the explosions.
"Possibly, as that fire developed, there was a leak in the gas," Coan said. "But I don't want to speculate to any extent that it was the cause of the fire."
Coan said firefighters followed proper protocols when fighting the blaze.
Because portions of the building continued to burn well into the day, fire officials and State Police were unable to begin examining the basement to determine the cause of the blaze until late afternoon. They expected to resume their investigation at 8 a.m. today.
Marty McNamara, a Clinton resident whose father and grandfather were former Clinton selectmen, hailed from a large family. Besides being an on-call firefighter, he was employed by a Sterling drilling company, and had two daughters, Molly, 5, and Elizabeth, 2, family and friends said. His wife, Claire, is nine months pregnant. McNamara celebrated his 31st birthday the day before.
Clinton Fire Department Captain John McNamara, Marty McNamara's cousin, said his cousin's goal was to become a full-time firefighter. "Preferably here in Clinton, but he would have gone anywhere for it," he said.
Others who knew McNamara said he was the kind of man "who would do anything for you."
"Our main concern now is John McLaughlin," said John McNamara, referring to the Clinton firefighter who was upgraded from critical to serious condition last night at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, where he was treated for heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation. "We're sweating that out. The first 48 hours are critical. Our prayers [are] with him. We lost one. We almost lost two."
Two of McNamara's brothers-in-law, also firefighters, helped battle the blaze.
More than eight fire companies assisted the Lancaster department.
Lamont Plowden, 26, a history teacher at the Greater Boston Academy in Stoneham, who lived on the second floor of the house, said he was awakened at about 3:30 a.m. by "a boom." Seconds later, the building's fire alarms sounded.
Plowden walked into the hallway but noticed nothing unusual, so he said he returned to his bedroom to put on his winter coat to go outside. By the time he stepped back into the hallway, smoke had engulfed the entire stairwell.
"It took me 15 seconds to walk back over to my bed, grab my jacket and walk back over to the door. Fifteen seconds. That's how fast the smoke was," he recalled. "As I was walking through my house to the fire escape, the smoke was coming out through my couch. I assume it was coming through the walls."
Five other tenants, including the home's owner, 82-year-old Loraine Moeckel, all made it to safety by the time firefighters arrived.
As firefighters from Clinton and Lancaster raced through the large, 2 1/2-story home searching for occupants, others began venting the roof, battling fierce winds and a slight drizzle.
"The first flames we saw, that was well after the first firefighters were here. We saw the first four go in. Then I know one guy came out. He was frantic. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but he was yelling something," Plowden said. "I know they pulled out two guys, one guy was on a stretcher, and they took him away. . . . I remember seeing one guy, they just put him at the base of the stairs and guys were taking off their equipment. I guess they were doing CPR."
Firefighters made several attempts to rescue McNamara from the basement but the smoke was too thick. His body was pulled out shortly afterwards, with firefighters holding up green tarps to shield McNamara from onlookers, and he was loaded into a waiting ambulance, according to Heather Friske, a neighbor who lives across the street.
"I thought his family was there. A chaplain [went] with them in the ambulance," she said while staring out at the charred remains of the home as firefighters continued to douse the burning embers. "That poor guy right there, that firefighter from Shirley," she said pointing to a nearby firefighter. "He came in to use the phone. They say men aren't supposed to cry. Well, I saw several men bawling their eyes out. It was a hard day for them. Not only did they work hard, but they lost a brother."
McNamara's father, in a brief statement, thanked his community for its outpouring of support.
"Every time you get a call like this you think about it. You just never think it's going to be any of you own," Goodwin said, holding back tears. "You're always there for each other. But sometimes things happen and you can't be. And that's the worst feeling in the world."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.