Until a couple of weeks ago I had never heard of Worcester, Massachusetts Fire Lt. Jason Menard. There’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of him at all.
Two weeks ago he and his family had been scheduled to go on vacation, to Walt Disney World. But early that bitter cold and windy morning the call came, and 39-year-old Lt. Menard and the others of Ladder 5, Group 2, McKeon Road Fire Station responded. They didn’t hesitate in entering the burning three-story house – there was a report that a baby might be trapped inside.
Soon the firefighters were trapped instead, on the third-story stairway. Lt. Menard helped one firefighter escape through debris. He threw another firefighter through a window, saving his life. He turned back to see if there were others, and was himself now without a way to escape the fire. He died there.
Lt. Menard had a wife and three children. He was born and raised in Worcester, a medium-sized city about 40 miles west of Boston. Neighbors told reporters that if they had to pick someone likely to give his life to save others, it would be Jason Menard.
Possibly the greatest concentration of emotion available in this world is found at the funeral of a firefighter who was killed in the line of duty; that’s even more true if they died while saving others. Organizations have traditions, and in none is the tradition deeper and richer than that in the fire service. Which is doubly so in the Northeast, with some fire departments in existence for centuries. The Worcester Fire Department was established in 1835.
The funeral of Lt. Menard was attended by firefighters from all over the country. Outside the church, bagpipers and drummers from departments from many states – I noticed one from western Virginia – played as the casket was loaded on the fire truck for its ride to the cemetery, during much of which his fellow firefighters marched along side. As the procession passed his firehouse, his station mates stood at attention behind a stack of turnout gear including his bunker coat and lieutenant’s helmet.
I don’t mean to minimize the contribution and sacrifice of the other emergency services when I say there’s something different about firefighters and the fire service.
When I was in high school, I had the good fortune of being a member of an Explorer Scout post that was attached to the local volunteer fire department, whose chief was the head of firemanics study at the University of Missouri. We spent a lot of time in training, maintenance, smoke towers, and the like. Later, it would be my privilege to cover a bunch of fire departments in cities up and down the country.
I remember a very rainy night out in the swamp in Lauderhill, Florida, keeping watch with firefighters as they searched for the remains of a small airplane that callers said they had seen go down during a thunderstorm that night. It was found soon after dawn, and it was firemen who loaned me a bunker coat to cover my cameras and boots to get through the swamp, and firefighters who smuggled me to the scene, which was unspeakably grim.
A new pilot, a teenager, had basically stolen the plane and had taken his best friend and their girlfriends for a ride. Deep in the woods the plane had broken to pieces when it crashed. There were airplane parts all over, along with pieces of the bodies of four teenagers. We all did our jobs. (It can be comforting to have a camera to hide behind.) And for the next few weeks, we all tended to hang out together, because it wasn’t something you could discuss with people who hadn’t been there. I think that kind of thing explains a lot about the brotherhood of firefighters.
I think, too, of my old friend Pete Vallas. You’ve never heard of him, but in 1977 he received a special award from President Carter for having in the previous 16 years gone into burning buildings and personally rescued a total of 37 people. Seven years later he was additionally honored by President Reagan, by which time he was the most decorated fireman in the country. When he had a stroke a couple of years ago, it was his fellow firefighters who saved him.
Fires can happen at any time, but this is the peak period of house fires. People are turning on their furnaces and lighting their woodstoves for the first time this season, and something may have changed with those heating systems since the spring. They’re using indoor space heaters and may have forgotten the precautions necessary for their safe use. In a few weeks, Christmas trees, improperly maintained, will result in fires that quickly spread, often flashing over with devastating results.
And in every case, firefighters will rush to the scene. Some, mostly in municipalities, are paid. Others are volunteers. Either way, they expose themselves to tremendous risk. Some, like Lt. Menard, lose their lives suddenly at the fire scene. For others, the danger is more subtle.
Our homes are full of all kinds of modern materials, typically plastics and composites. When those materials burn, they give off gases that are extremely harmful, sometimes even in small amounts. That kind of exposure, as well as the wear and tear that comes of working in a highly dangerous environment, builds over time. The life expectancy of a professional firefighter is 10 to 15 years less than that of people who do something else for a living. They give up something precious in order to keep you and me safe.
None of us upon awakening can be sure we’ll be alive at day’s end. That’s always worth pondering. But relatively few of us are likely that day to rush into a situation that puts our survival at risk. Firefighters are, and do.
So perhaps as you consider the things for which you are thankful, you might remember our firefighters, and maybe even think a small prayer for the family of Lt. Jason Menard, who will have a Thanksgiving without him.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.