WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — Thick, gray smoke started to billow out of the four-story, red building as firefighters ran in.

They had to knock down the flames, which started to peek out of the second-story windows.

One group propelled themselves up a ladder truck and onto the roof, clutching chainsaws. One firefighter hung out of a second-floor window, waiting for a hose to haul inside.

Even with work to be done and more than 60 pounds of gear weighing them down, there was one consolation for the 20 firefighters at the scene: No one would be hurt in this blaze.

But soon, that won't be a guarantee.

Unlike this controlled blaze at the Worcester Fire Department's training building, these firefighters will soon be battling flames inside crowded triple deckers, which are littered throughout New England's second-largest city.

This fire culminated the end of 15 weeks of intensive training for the city's newest firefighters. Seventeen of the 20 recruits in the academy are joining the Worcester department. The other three are heading to Marlborough.

Sunday, June 24 marks the start of rotations for the new Worcester firefighters, who will work at the 10 fire stations throughout the city.

Landing a spot in the Worcester academy is like hitting the lottery, they've been told. It's a department with a legacy, with a training staff devoted to helping shape the best in the business.

These recruits are about to start what they call "the best job in the world."

Shane Keddy carries a hose out of the burn building.

"What's the next best thing? I said, probably being a firefighter."

Shane Keddy and Kervin Lima used to pass each other a football during their high school years at Worcester Tech.

Tossing the pigskin has now turned into handling 35-foot ladders.

Lima, 28, was born in Queens, New York, but moved to Worcester as a young child. He just finished up 8 years with the Marines, including a tour in Afghanistan.

Keddy, 26, was born and raised in Worcester. He played ball at Assumption College and previously worked at the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction in West Boylston.

"When you're younger, I guess you have certain dreams. Like my dream was to play professional baseball and that didn't work out," Keddy said. "What's the next best thing? I said, probably being a firefighter."

Keddy has a clean-cut look. He shaved his mustache off part of the way through the academy. Aside from working at the jail, he had been working construction with his dad, a skill that helped him feel comfortable with heights when it came time to get on the roof of the training building.

The outgoing Lima, the spokesman for the recruit class, kept his mustache. He says his years in the military were some of the best in his life. Lima, who often wears a baseball hat backwards and has tattoos dotted across his biceps, jokes that he's worked in just about every Target store in the state.

In their off time, the two like to work out. Traveling is a thrill for Keddy, who just before the academy took a trip to Montreal.

Lima used to dance in a hip-hop group out of the city's YMCA and loves watching reruns of "The Office" on Netflix.

Finally, two years after taking the civil service test in 2016, they found themselves among the same recruit class. Two Worcester men, ready to dedicate themselves to their city.

Kervin Lima works a fire at the training building.

"It's kind of mind-blowing. You literally can't see a thing."

The first time Lima put on his pack, he felt suppressed by the weight of the compressed air tank. Because his fire coat and pants were brand new, they were stiff, making it difficult to move around freely, let alone work with a hose or ax.

But still, it was an improvement from the first week, when he got a little claustrophobic wearing his face mask.

After the first live burn on March 21, the first time the firefighters went face to face with flames, Lima called the experience was "humbling."

The recruits had to place their hands against the walls of the burn building, trying to make their way through the pitch black as smoke gathered.

"We always think that it's kind of not as bad as you think, but when you're in there, when you see all the lieutenants, captains talk, it's kind of mind-blowing. You literally can't see a thing," Keddy said.

During one fire evolution, Keddy and Lima were within feet of each other, and completely unaware of how close they were because of the darkness.

"We were that far apart," they said inside a downtown Worcester coffee shop, demonstrating by motioning their hands out in front of their faces. "And we're like, hey is that you?"

Kervin Lima suits up to go inside the burn building.

"They keep reminding us, this is a dangerous job."

But there's a safety net in the controlled environment of the burn building, where fires set to straw and wood pallets are contained and the rescues are of inanimate objects.

Come the start of their June 24 rotations, the recruits will be inside burning buildings, couches and chemicals aflame.

Lima and Keddy cautiously say they can't yet imagine what it will be like when they actually have to rescue a person.

They feel ready, they say, their determination nearly leaking from their pores as they imagine the realities of firefighting. The realities they'll be facing soon outside of the comfort of the academy.

"They keep reminding us, this is a dangerous job," Lima said. "There's no illusions of you're gonna sit in the firehouse all day and never see a fire. Especially this being Worcester, we have a whole bunch of old buildings."

"You're going to be scared but I think at some point your body just takes over and you don't even think about it."

Keddy and Lima say no one truly wants to go into a burning building. But the prospect of it doesn't scare them.

"Looking at a fire and having to go in, yeah, you're going to be scared but I think at some point your body just takes over and you don't even think about it," Lima said. "You just do it, I would hope."

When Lima told his mother, he was going to be a firefighter, her reaction was that of a "typical Haitian immigrant mother," he said. Why couldn't he be a doctor instead, she asked.

Mothers are always worried about their children's safety. And these two mothers knew their son's hearts were in the right place.

Keddy's mom said to him, "You really want to do that? You have to go into burning buildings, you know," he recalled.

He doesn't think anyone ever feels comfortable going into an active fire.

"It's just your job. You have to do it," Keddy said. "You get satisfaction out of it if you help someone else."

To be as prepared as possible, they had to learn about every facet of fighting fire.

Kervin Lima hangs upside down on rappel day during the academy.

"They say, this is the easy part in the burn building. So when you get out in the real world, it's gonna be completely different."

Lessons in the academy went examined the chemistry of fire; they focused on hazmat situations; several weeks included medical training; and they even learned about homemade bombs.

They got to rappel down the four-story, 40-foot tall training building and saw a stunning view of Worcester from atop a 100-foot ladder.

And the group took a visit to Logan International Airport to train with Massport. Using a makeshift plane, they got to see the process of dealing with a disaster at an airport.

"Instead of our first time coming up to a scene and being like, 'I don't know what to do. I've never done this before,' at least we have an idea of what it could look like," Keddy said.

On classroom days, which were stuffy and slow for the eager trainees, some of the recruits would practice tying knots during lectures.

In moments when the 20 weren't freely shouting out answers to queries, the instructors would nudge them along.

"See what I'm saying? It's not rocket science," they'd yell out. Or, "That's why you never stop learning in this job."

When it comes to triple deckers, which notoriously get eaten up by fire, the recruits were trained specifically. Part of the attack plan is to keep hose lines on neighboring buildings to ensure the fire doesn't spread.

The burn building has clear hallways and a set of stairs the recruits have memorized and climb with ease.

But inside triple deckers, they'll have to find their way through smoke, propelling themselves up steep staircases and around furniture.

"They say, this is the easy part in the burn building," Keddy recalled. "So when you get out in the real world, it's gonna be completely different. It's not gonna be black and white."

That notion was a common theme in training.

"They say all the time," Keddy recited. "It's not gonna be black and white. There's gonna be a little gray where you're gonna have to make do with what you've got and figure it out as you go."

"I remember how sad it was."

Lima was a student at St. Peter Central Catholic elementary school and can recall the heartache that enveloped the classroom and the city on Dec. 3, 1999.

One of the girls in his class lost her father. Lima can't recall the girl's name, but her dad was one of the six firefighters who perished in the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse fire, he said.

"I remember how sad it was," Lima said quietly.

The tragedy and the impact it had on firefighting in the future are one of the reasons the Worcester Fire Department is revered across the country.

Smoke billowed out of the burn building during a training exercise.

"When people think of Worcester, a Worcester firefighter, the Worcester Six obviously pops into their mind."

"When people think of Worcester, a Worcester firefighter, the Worcester Six obviously pops into their mind," Keddy said. "That was a tragedy, what happened, but obviously they were doing it for a reason. They weren't just walking around the warehouse. They thought someone was in there. They were trying to save lives. I'd say they were heroes."

It was weeks into the academy before Lima, Keddy and their classmates learned that fellow recruit David Brotherton was the son of Firefighter Paul Brotherton, one of the Worcester Six.

The opportunity to serve alongside firefighters who so distinctly remember that December day, to train with the son of a firefighter who made the ultimate sacrifice, is a significance not lost on the recruits.

"It's definitely a privilege," Lima said. "So to actually have the opportunity to even mention my name in that same category with such great firefighters, to say I'm a Worcester firefighter ... It's definitely something that I'm proud of, the heritage that we have."

"You don't want a fire to happen. That's just like the worst thing that could happen to someone. But we want to get in there and see a real fire."

Everything goes back to what they have learned, Keddy said.

"The first time we threw on the gear, throw a hose in our hand, we didn't know what the heck we were doing," the recruit said, laughing fondly.

But now they have the tools to handle each situation in front of them.

"No matter how bad the fire is, no matter how crazy or hectic everything is, it just kind of comes back to what you've learned and what you're taught," Keddy said.

And when the plan falls through, they've learned how to improvise.

"They always kind of say, too, there's always a plan going into a situation, but 90 percent of the time you're going into plan B," Keddy said, as Lima interjected, "or C or D."

The two are itching to experience their first house fire, to put their influx of new knowledge to use.

"You don't want a fire to happen. That's just like the worst thing that could happen to someone. But we want to get in there and see a real fire, a real situation a real house and deal with all of the kinds of stuff that these guys have been going through," Keddy said. "It's kind of exciting but definitely you don't know how you're going to react when you get there, but obviously the training for all these weeks have been preparing us for that situation."

Lima said the 15 weeks of training felt like a full year of schooling.

But still, after every week, Lima said he would run home and tell his girlfriend and his family about each new, crazy experience he had.

One thing the recruits did not expect to learn about? Childbirth.

But as some of the first people to respond to medical situations, there's a chance they'll have to deliver a baby someday.

The training session included a video of childbirth, like something out of a high school health class.

"That was a video I don't think I ever have to see again," Lima said with a bashful laugh.

Recruits and instructors watched as Kervin Lima rappelled down the building.

"I just hope that at the end of our 30, 32 years, that we stay in touch, which I think we will."

When Lima started the academy, he expected it to be like the rigid bootcamp from his Marine Corps. Training.

Between moments of tough love from instructors, the academy has included a lot of laughter.

Fridays after training started to include trips to Ralph's for drinks. Then the guys started getting together on weekends, going out for food or golfing.

Lima and Keddy have seen the power of that camaraderie from their instructors and they talk about it with awe.

Lt. Joseph Gaffney is one of about 10 firefighters from his academy class still on the job more than 30 years later.

"You can tell he takes a lot of pride in that," Keddy said.

The two hope their class will be the same way.

"I just hope that at the end of our 30, 32 years, that we stay in touch, which I think we will," Lima said. "I take a lot of pride in the fact that I think we were a pretty good class. On top of that, I think we worked pretty hard and we tried to make sure that we made out instructors proud. Hopefully we're an example to other classes that come after us."

Kervin Lima helps carry a ladder during a training exercise.

"When it comes to helping people and making a difference ... I want to feel good about it."

Keddy and Lima learned that firefighting is about more than taking down flames.

"It could be like your 15th medical call but to that person, that's probably the biggest emergency they've had, like ever, so you have to think of it in that sense and be empathetic to people's issues," he said. "You never know what somebody's worst day is, so you have understood that concept."

Keddy says they chose to be firefighters because they want to make sure their lives have a purpose.

"My main reason for wanting to do it is just that, when it comes to helping people and making a difference, at the end of my life, when I'm thinking about all the things that I've done prior, I want to feel good about it," Lima said. "And I feel this is the ultimate way to go about it."

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