Military News

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Remembering our fallen firefighters

by Tech. Sgt. Robert Barnett
JBER Public Affairs

9/16/2015 - ANCHORAGE, Alaska  -- Parents wake with a start at the sound of their smoke alarm screaming. Their bedroom is as black as night, and their senses are flooded with the thick, gagging smell of smoke. They make their way to the door and are able to feel the heat through it. Not a good sign.

Concerned for their children, the parents open the door anyway. Smoke clouds everything. Somehow a fire started downstairs, and now everyone in the house is facing a potentially deadly situation. How do they get everyone out without catching on fire or suffocating from the smoke?

The sound of breaking glass catches their attention and they turn towards the window. Only when the window is gone do they hear the sirens and see the firefighters making their way in. Their house might be gone, but their lives are spared because a few chose to make the commitment and risk their own lives saving others.

This scenario is an example of what firefighters do. Various films such as 'Ladder 49' and 'Fireproof' also provide examples portraying how firefighters risk, or give, their lives to save others.

These scenarios pale compared to what was required on Sept. 11, 2001. The service sometimes requires the full commitment and ultimate sacrifice, and such sacrifices are remembered during these and similar observances.

They were once again remembered on Sept. 11, 2015, during the Alaska Fallen Firefighters Memorial Ceremony, next to Fire Station One in Anchorage. The event was attended by numerous firefighters and fire departments from across the state, military from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and other bases, and civilians from the community coming to pay their respects and remember.

"It's important that we never forget," said Mark Barker, chairman of the Fallen Firefighter Committee. "This memorial is here for the family members of the fallen, so they know we will never forget their loved ones. It also stands here for the fellow members of the department, signifying that we will also never forget them. It stands here for those who may not know what happened to their loves ones, whose names may be lost to history, or those who now, generations later, are learning about family members who died in the line of duty in Alaska."

During the ceremony, a special guest was introduced.

"Every one of the names on the plaques has a story, but one today is particularly special," Barker said. "Not many people know, but during the early days of World War II, the U.S. Navy built a number of bases across Alaska. One of these Navy bases in Sitka was protected by an Army base called Fort Ray. On the evening of Oct. 12, 1941, a grass fire started on one of those islands [off the coast of Sitka]."

The grass fire started to spread to a dynamite and ammunition shed on one of those causeways on an island, he said. The U.S. Army fire brigade was called and a fire truck with four firefighters responded.

As they pulled up to it, the shed exploded, killing all four firefighters.

"The officer in charge of the fire brigade that evening was a guy named Capt. Francis Allen - That's his plaque on [our] wall," Barker said. "Today, we have his grandson [visiting], a retired fire chief, Jeffrey Allen."

The news of Allen's death found its way to his wife via a telegram, asking what she wanted to do with the body, Jeffrey Allen said.

"After the official report of his death, nothing was done," he said.

Jeffrey Allen had looked into his grandfather's death before, but recently had discovered something new.

He found the Alaska Fallen Firefighter's Memorial online, he explained.

"I was able to confirm that my grandfather and the other three firefighters had been immortalized on the wall here," he said. "I sat there with tears streaming down my cheeks. I could not believe what I was seeing - after all this time, his sacrifice had been recognized. So I'm here to say thank you to my fellow firefighters who have kept that promise that, even after 70 years, we never forget our fallen brothers and sisters."

After the ceremony, many chose to stay and view the plaques on the walls, and the bricks in the ground with names of Alaska's fallen firefighters engraved on them.

"If people cannot depend fully on the fire service, then nothing is sacred," said keynote speaker retired fire chief Dewey Whetsell. "You can still look inside a fire station and note those inside who won't sit by and watch the suffering of others, who won't turn a deaf ear on their needs. You can still find the continual testimony of what's good in man."

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