Metro, Newton

‘He’s a hero to me’: Ray McNamara, Retired Newton Fire Lieutenant, Dies at 79

Former Newton Fire Lieutenant Ray McNamara and other firefighters rushed into a burning H.C. Starck Inc. building on Needham Street in October 1993, when a sudden explosion injured 11 firefighters, McNamara included. 

McNamara’s injuries almost killed him, but the firefighter still loved the job, said Mike McNamara, his son and the Deputy Chief of the Newton Fire Department.

“He loved that job,” Mike said. “And he said it many times even after the accident: ‘If I could just get my eyesight back, I’d go back to work.’ He just loved it.”

McNamara, known by some close to him as “RayMac,” died at the age of 79 on Jan. 11, more than 30 years after that injury. 

The explosion burned over 90 percent of McNamara’s body and sent him into a coma for 16 months, during which his family twice had last rites read to him, Mike said. 

Nevertheless, McNamara survived and continued to be a source of guidance and inspiration to those around him for nearly three decades. 

“His love for the profession, his dedication to the department and his fellow fire fighters, and his boundless enthusiasm for life inspired us all,” Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller wrote in an email newsletter on Jan. 13.

Growing up in a modest neighborhood on Derby Street of West Newton, McNamara was one of five children in a large Irish family, according to Mike. Before his career as a firefighter, McNamara spent his early days serving in the Navy and was stationed in Vietnam for two years. 

In December 1969, McNamara joined the Newton Fire Department at the age of 27. By 1984, the department had promoted him to lieutenant, according to Capt. Mark Roche, department historian. 

Mike saw his father face numerous challenges in his life, but he said the late lieutenant possessed the grit to overcome them all. 

“He’s a hero to me,” Mike said. “He was a no-nonsense guy … and it’s just amazing, everything that he beat.”

McNamara at one point worked three jobs to support his family, sending all three of his sons to college and into military service. Two of them—Mike and Brian McNamara—carried on their father’s legacy as Newton firefighters.

“He raised us kids,” Mike said. “He worked like three jobs just bringing us up: He was a firefighter. He worked on the side as a medic for a private ambulance. He also did some EMT work for football games for high school. … Not to mention that he also drove a cab once in a while just to make a few bucks.”

But McNamara was a firefighter at heart, Mike said, and his injuries in 1993 robbed him of his beloved profession. 

McNamara lost his sight for over a year as a result of his injuries. He briefly reclaimed it for around a year and a half, only to lose it again. 

In addition to the injuries, McNamara also fought two bouts of cancer, according to Mike. Despite his hardships, however, McNamara not only overcame his own obstacles, but also provided solace to others struggling with loss. 

“Him and I, every time someone in the fire department’s family member or mother or father passed away, [we] would go to the wakes,” Mike said. “We must have gone to 50 of them just to pay our respects. And it just meant so much to people when he’d walk in. He always had some words of wisdom to say to these people—I don’t even know where he got these words.”

McNamara’s family held a private funeral mass for the late lieutenant on Jan. 15, according to The Boston Globe. A public celebration of McNamara’s life will take place after the COVID-19 pandemic, the Globe wrote. 

After his retirement, McNamara continued to impart his enthusiasm and wisdom to future firefighters, according to Mike. Each year, McNamara spoke to graduating cadet classes at a fire academy. 

“His big thing that he would tell every one of them was: ‘There wasn’t a day I woke up that I didn’t have a smile on my face just knowing I had that job,’” Mike said.

Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor

January 30, 2022