By Jonathan Phelps
---- — PEABODY — Fallen Peabody firefighter Jim Rice was remembered yesterday as a family man and friend who wore his uniform proudly. He collapsed and died while fighting a three-alarm fire at an apartment house on Hancock Street almost a year ago.
It was Dec. 23, two days before Christmas.
Yesterday, Rice, an 11-year veteran of the department, was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor during the state’s annual Firefighter of the Year awards ceremony held at Mechanics Hall in Worcester. The award was accepted by Rice’s wife Amy, who wiped tears from her eyes during the presentation.
The room was silent as a bell rang out and bagpipers played “Amazing Grace” in his memory.
Amy Rice said she was honored to receive the award for her husband. Rice also left behind three children, Alyssa, 13; Katelyn, 10 and Ryan, 8.
“The community has been amazing,” she said. “Everybody has been there to support us, from the schools to the Fire Department and the Police Department. Everyone has just stepped up, and I am proud to be from such an amazing community.”
Worcester Firefighter Jon Davies, who died battling a fire at a triple-decker 15 days before Rice, was also honored with a posthumous Medal of Honor. He was a 17-year veteran of that department.
Amy Rice said she was thinking of the surviving members of the Davies family as well as her own while receiving the award from Gov. Deval Patrick and state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan.
“All the surviving members are on my mind constantly, because I know what they are going through,” she said.
Peabody fire Capt. Jay Dowling joined her on the stage during the presentation, which included an emotional video featuring clips from various firefighters talking about Rice.
“Jim was one of my closest friends,” Dowling said, noting they played Little League together growing up in Peabody. “So it was just an honor to be here to support Amy.”
“We try to move on, but we are never going to forget him. He is always with us, he is always in our hearts and minds, especially now that the anniversary is coming up.”
On the day of the fire, Rice, who was unresponsive, was carried out of the burning building by Deputy Chief Eric Harrison — then a captain — and rushed to Salem Hospital. But he could not be revived.
Harrison received a medal of valor yesterday for entering the burning building to try to save Rice, after a distress device on him indicated he wasn’t moving.
Yesterday’s ceremony was attended by about 30 Peabody firefighters, fire Chief Steven Pasdon, Mayor Ted Bettencourt and former Mayor Michael Bonfanti.
Bettencourt said he also grew up playing sports with Rice. He remembered him as a great family man, friend and firefighter.
“He was a person I looked up to, admired and liked to be around,” he said. “Jim Rice was a true hero for the city and someone who will always be remembered by the city.”
Pasdon said it has been a difficult year for the department following Rice’s death.
“I’ve done my best trying to keep it together the past year, but I had a difficult time,” Pasdon said of yesterday’s ceremony. “I felt as though I had to be a rock for everybody, and I was just sitting there and all the emotion just hit.”
Like many others, Capt. John Hosman said he also grew up playing youth sports with Rice and considered himself a close friend. He said firefighters continue to support his family in any way they can.
“It was emotional for me,” Hosman said of the ceremony. “It is going to be a difficult weekend for the firefighters. But we will be there to the support the Rice family.”
Four Peabody firefighters — Capt. Dale Kimball, Paul Rheaume, Stephen Pellegrini and Paul LaPlante — received a Meritorious Group Award for their work on Dec. 11, 2011, rescuing a man who crashed his car into a house on Herrick Street. The vehicle had rolled over and exploded into flames.
“They reached down when the car was still on fire and pulled him out because they knew it was critical,” Pasdon said.
Salem fire Lt. Richard Arno and firefighters Randy Theriault and Michael O’Donnell also received medals of valor for their work on the night of March 18 in rescuing two children from a fire allegedly set by their mother, Tanicia Goodwin.
Goodwin is also accused of slashing the children’s throats, leaving them for dead. She then allegedly spread accelerant all over the apartment and removed the door knobs. Hundreds had to be evacuated from the Salem Heights apartment complex.