Juneau honors fallen firefighters

In 2008, 103 firefighters died in the line of duty

Posted: Sunday, October 04, 2009

To mark the start of National Fire Prevention Week, Juneau's Fallen Fighters Memorial on Saturday honored 103 U.S. firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2008.

David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire

Juneau volunteer firefighters read all 103 names during Saturday's ceremony at the memorial. Those named died of heart attacks, in car accidents, from traumatic injuries and other causes, according to news reports and press releases.

The list included the names of seven Oregon firefighters, ages 19 to 30, who died in a helicopter crash Aug. 5, 2008, while responding to an alarm. It included the name of Cap. Leonard Riggins, 52, of the St. Louis Fire Department, who died Nov. 5, 2008, after being shot while giving aid at the scene of a vehicle accident that was part of a carjacking. It included the name of firefighter Walt Harris Sr., 38, of the Detroit Fire Department, who died after falling through a roof at a residential structure fire on Nov. 15, 2008.

Every year, more than 100 firefighters in the country die in the line of duty, Juneau Fire Chief Eric Mohrmann said.

"It's up to all of us to reduce the number of firefighters who die in the line of duty," he said. "Please practice fire safety in your homes every day. That's the best way to protect the public and the lives of firefighters, and avoid loss of property."

The ceremony also marks Alaska's Fire Prevention Month, officials said.

"That's when fire prevention is officially recognized, but, unofficially, fire prevention happens throughout the year, every day," downtown Fire Marshal Dan Jager said.

He said fire officials will visit schools and have organized station tours for children this month.

Also remembered at the memorial were the 10 Alaska firefighters who died in the line of duty since such records started, starting with Juneau's Hugh C. Rudolph, who died in 1946. This year, firefighters who died while fighting Alaska wildland fires were added to the state's roster of fallen firefighters. They had not included before.

No Juneau firefighters were named on this year's list, but that doesn't mean the Juneau firefighting community was without loss this year, Mohrmann said.

A couple of retired firefighters close to the Juneau firefighting community died this year from cancer, he said, including former Deputy Fire Marshal Gordon Brunton, who died July 22, and Tom Monk, a former fire service trainer, who died Sept. 24.

"These weren't line-of-duty deaths, because they don't meet the criteria, but they were good friends of mine," Mohrmann said.

Because they were responsible for teaching others how to safely and effectively fight fires, their legacy continues in everyone who learned from them, he said.

Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell spoke at the event, the first time that an officer from any governor's administration has participated in Juneau's annual ceremony. He recounted a memory of the day his Kindergarten class visited a fire station. Firefighters gave him a yellow plastic cap, he said.

"Firefighting is an honorable profession, and we need to spread that message," he said. "I think bringing kids into the fire station and indoctrinating them at a young age, that it's important and honorable profession, is good."

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Why October?

Most people are aware of the Great Chicago Fire that started Oct. 8, 1871 after a long, hot summer. That fire killed about 300 people and charred almost four square miles in the heart of downtown Chicago. Fewer people are aware of the Preshtigo Fire that started the same day in Wisconsin and remains the worst forest fire in American history, according to the National Fire Protection Association's Web site, www.nfpa.org. The Preshtigo Fire killed more than 1,000 people, destroyed 16 towns, and scorched 1.2 million acres.

"Consequently, in recognition of these fires, President Woodrow Wilson declared October 9 Fire Prevention Day, and that later was translated to Fire Prevention Week, and then Fire Prevention Month," Fire Chief Eric Mohrmann said. "It's the time of year, in remembrance of these fires, we put particular emphasis on fire prevention education."

Firefighting is dangerous anywhere, but Alaska's extreme cold makes it even more so here, Jager said.

"When you're fighting fires, you get wet from the hose spray, and you sweat a lot," he said. "When you're done doing that, you're outside and cool off real quick, which can lead to hypothermia."

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