You know those times when I have to get it down on paper to get it out of my head?
Thursday afternoon the facebook status of a fellow firefighter wife said she "didn't like what she was hearing on the scanners". It was almost 5pm. I called Jeff's work to see if he was out on a call and learned that No, the fellow firefighter wife was referring to a situation unfolding in the town of Listowel, in the neighbouring county. A town 20 minutes from where I grew up and where I have spent countless hours of time. A town where many of my friends went to highschool and now live.
We learned that 6 fire departments were battling a large blaze and 2 of the firefighters were missing. The predicted outcome was "not good". The Ontario Fire Marshall's office and Victim Services had been notified and asked to respond to the scene immediately. The first person I called was my mom, told her the information I had and told her not to say anything. We discussed the people we knew on the North Perth Fire Dept, one of had been a close friend of Jeff's in highschool, whose wedding we attended, who had competed against Jeff in the Firefighter Games over the years. Another whose parents my mom and aunt knew well, and had lost another son a few years ago in an accident. As I hung up the phone with my mom, Jeff arrived home from work, his face pale, his hands shaking as he spoke. Friends that are also firefighters called here, wondering what, if anything, we knew.
My brother called me on his way home from work, a route that takes him through Listowel. We disussed the firefighters we knew and what we had heard so far. We discussed the agony the people there must be going through. Because, obviously, if we could hear it on our scanners, they could certainly hear it on theirs.
Just before 8pm Jeff headed out to the firehall and met up with some others there. He hadn't even turned our street corner before The London Free Press website confirmed that two firefighters had died.
Tears instantly stung my eyes as I reached Jeff on his cell phone. No names had been released. I called my mom, my brother and then my dad.
My dad was in Saskatchewan and I wasn't even sure if he'd be done work yet. My dad grew up outside Listowel, has many ties to the town and knows many of its firefighters personally. I took a couple deep breaths as the phone was ringing and when he answered brightly I did my best to control my voice. However as soon as I spoke my voice shook and he knew something was very wrong. I told him there was a fire in Listowel and he said his sister had texted him earlier telling him that. I told him there were 6 departments there. He asked me what was wrong. I then told him it had been confirmed by The London Free Press and our local radio station that two of the local firefighters had died but that no names had been released. My dad immediately asked if his own department from back home was there and I assured him that they weren't. He asked me if there was any reason my brother would be there and I assured him Mike was fine.
He got very quiet and then spoke of his friendship with one of the North Perth Fire Chiefs and the hell he would be going through. As we hung up he asked me to keep him posted.
I spoke with a good friend that evening who is also a firefighter wife here in town, as well as with other firefighters and their families throughout this area, as we waited.
Just before 9pm my brother called and told me to sit down. I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me and again tears sprung to my eyes. I yelled at him to just tell me.
He said "one of them is 30 yrs old" which is how old I am. Mike had somehow found out the identies of the victims and when he told me their names I sank into my chair.
I did not know who they were, they weren't who I feared it could have been and I knew Jeff wouldn't know them, not well anyways.
I felt sick. Just sick, for their wives, and their families. I called Jeff again on his cell phone and then my mom. My brother called my dad and broke the news to him.
It wasn't long after 10pm when the local media announced the names of the victims. Jeff, myself, my brother, my mom, my dad and every other firefighter family we spoke to that night were just stunned. Absolutely stunned into disbelief. This never happens. In the over 30 years my dad has been a firefighter, this has never happened that he can remember, where a volunteer firefighter has died in the line of duty. Tonight there were 2, in a town 20 minutes where I grew up, where I went grocery shopping with my mom every Friday, where I spent countless hours as a child and a teenager.
Of course it could happen, everyone knows that. Anytime, anywhere. But it never does. Never. Now there were 2. Two.
This really affected me, really resonated with me. I kept thinking of these families, and was struck by the question of how, in 30 years, our family has been spared.
This has been a part of family since before I was born, for awhile there were 4 firefighters in my family, now there are 2 and I wondered, how have we been spared for that long?
My father was a "cowboy" firefighter, thinking he was invincible and the rules didn't apply to him. He has walked away from so many situations many others wouldn't have. My brother was just 18 when he started, was young, naive and had my dad for a role model. My brother in law had been a firefighter for quite a few years, and my own husband was a member of a busy department too. All of them had faced barnfires, meth labs, residential and industrial fires among many other things.
All of them have walked on roofs that could have, and sometimes did later cave in.
It really struck me. In the last 30 years, and especially in the last 10 years...how lucky my family had been.
As I said, to most people's knowledge, this hasn't happened in a very very long time. I have never seen a firefighter funeral, certainly not a Volunteer Firefighter funeral, and certainly not locally.
This week I will see 2. (link added later)
I watched the footage on the news last night of the honour guard formed as the bodies of the two fallen firefighters were recovered and removed from the scene. I watched as the firemen cried like children, holding eachother up as the vans passed by. I watched the reaction of the families, and like so many others in my shoes, thought of my own family. I have always supported our fire departments and been proud of the men in my family for being a part of them. Of course I have complained or rolled my eyes over the years, we all have. Sometimes it feels like a "boys club" and we don't understand all of the extra commitments that come with it. Sometimes we don't have much patience. But since Jeff has been promoted to Captain and I have watched, heard and learned as his role has changed, I have a new respect for it and the responsibilities. When push comes to shove I have always been proud of the men in my family and how seriously they take their roles, but watching that footage last night...It made me physically ill and for the first time in my life, I wanted to tell my husband I couldn't handle it. That I wanted him to stop. I wonder how many other wives, daughters, sisters and mothers felt that same way last night or in the last few days and how many actually did say those words.
I wanted to say that to him, but I knew it was based on this event alone and based on my emotions. And I knew what he would say. I knew my thoughts were irrational, but man... for the first time in my life those thoughts were there and they were strong. And I know I wasn't alone. So I kept quiet and again, thanked God for sparing my family over the last 30 years.
30 years. People may wonder why this has struck such a cord with me, why it has affected me to this degree. 30 years and 4 men. That's why.
My dad had just told me earlier in the week that he had decided his days as a firefighter were over. That he had been asked to join the local department in Saskatchewan but had declined. I am grateful for that. My brother in law stepped down a few years ago from his local department so now of the four, two of the men in my family remain as volunteer firefighters. My husband as a Captain and my 25 year old brother who has similar goals.
It's so hard to put into words, even for me. the emotion this brings. The pride, the gratitude and the fear. I wonder how many local firefighters are doubting themselves and whether they really want to be a part of it. I wonder how many officers are doubting their roles, wondering if they really want the responsibility of having so many lives in their hands. But I know all of those feelings are based on these events alone and are temporary.
If anything, I hope it has opened your eyes. We have suffered the loss of two OPP officers in the line of duty in this county in the last few years and have been reminded how dangerous their jobs are and how it just takes one call, one seemingly normal, everyday call to go terribly wrong. We are so lucky that this rarely happens with firefighters in this area, but we are reminded that it could, and it does. We may go another 30 years with this never happening again, and I pray that we do.
But for the wives, children, families and friends of the two fallen North Perth Firefighters, time stopped on March 17. All of the worst case scenarios, the very unlikely worst case scenarios, became realities. It' something we truly cannot even imagine happening, we really believe won't happen.
But it did.
A popular movie was made quite a few years ago and I doubt there are many firemen, or their families, that haven't seen it. We own it and have watched it many times and the images from this movie mirror this situation so closely it hurts to watch. It hits so close to home it hurts.
This is what they go through, this is what they think about. This is worst case scenario. This can be reality.You don't have to watch it. But if you do, prepare yourself. I warn you, in light of these events, and in light of what you have read, this will be hard to watch.
I watch this and I see my husband.
I watch this and I see my brother.
I watch this...and I see myself.
It's hard to watch. It's even harder to live.
And even after all this, when the next call comes in, they will rush back out. They will bury all of this, answer the tones of the pager and jump right back into the saddle. For our department that was yesterday. When those pagers went off yesterday, I doubt there was one man, or one wife, whose heart didn't flip.
I'm not asking you to "hug a firefighter" or "thank a firefighter". I'm asking you to "get it".
As horrible as it is to watch or think about, It's even harder to live.
Here is the other post I wrote about Firefighter families, in June 2010
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