By Christina Hager, WBZ-TVBy Christina Hager

WORCESTER (CBS) – On a raw December day in 1999, six firefighters ran into the abandoned Worcester Cold Storage warehouse to save homeless people they thought were inside. They did not make it out alive.

“It’s a different day for me,” said Worcester’s emotional Deputy Chief Geoffrey Gardell Wednesday afternoon, 15 years after the tragedy. “Five out of the six were friends of mine. Tough day.” He says firefighting technology has made great advances since then. “We would be able to find them from the exterior if that happened today.”

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Toxic air sensors developed at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. (WBZ-TV)

Toxic air sensors developed at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. (WBZ-TV)

That is, in part, because of research at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Center for First Responder Technology. It’s a department the school created in response to the warehouse fire. “Somebody has to stand up for the firefighters,” says WPI researcher David Cygnanski. “It’s made us more and more dedicated to develop solutions that help save their lives. They do enough to save others’ lives.”

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Researchers have spent the last decade-and-a-half working on devices to track firefighters when they go into buildings. They’re now testing something new: toxic air sensors. “If they take off their mask, and we detect toxic levels, then it’ll alert by sounding the alarm,” explained WPI researcher Jim Duckworth.

Worcester observed the 15-year commemoration with a moment of silence in front of the Franklin Street Fire Station at 6:13, the exact time the call came in for the warehouse fire.

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Christina Hager