By: Sen. Susan M. Collins
Oct. 5 was a day of solemn remembrance as firefighters, families, and grateful citizens from throughout our State gathered at the Maine Firefighters Memorial to pay tribute to the men and women of our fire services who have dedicated their lives to protecting us.
During that moving ceremony, the names of each of the Maine firefighters we lost during the past year will be read, and for each, the bell will be rung. Whether they were on duty or retired, every name belonged to a hero who will always be remembered. Every ring of the bell was an echo, not just of who they were, but of the dedication that all firefighters share and of the gratitude that unites all whom they serve.
This annual memorial service is always powerful and inspiring. It had a special significance this year. On Sept. 16, a massive propane explosion destroyed the building for the nonprofit LEAP in Farmington. Fire Captain Michael Bell gave his life responding to a terrible tragedy in the town he loved so dearly. Our thoughts are with the other firefighters severely injured by the explosion: Michael’s brother, Fire Chief Terry Bell, Deputy Chief Clyde Ross, Captain Tim “TD” Hardy, Captain Scott Baxter, and Firefighters Theodore “Ted” Baxter and Joseph Hastings, as well as LEAP maintenance manager Larry Lord, who first detected the gas leak and courageously led at least a dozen co-workers to safety. We pray for their recovery.
In addition, this spring, Berwick Fire Captain Joel Barnes made the ultimate sacrifice battling a fire in his community, and Oxford Fire Chief Gary Sacco died at Captain Barnes’ funeral. We grieve for the families of these heroes – both their families at home and their brothers and sisters at the firehouse.
I visited Farmington on Sept. 20 and met with members of that valiant Fire Department and with other firefighters who stepped up to offer coverage and support. Despite the shock and sorrow, there was a strong feeling of determination and resilience throughout the entire community.
It is significant that in the shadow of our State House stand monuments to our fallen first responders: the firefighters, law-enforcement officers, and emergency medical personnel who gave their all to protect people throughout Maine.
That gratitude unites our nation. From rescuing victims in the Twin Towers to fighting massive wildfires out West to helping our neighbors in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Americans have seen firefighters and other first responders confront danger while others flee to safety. We have seen valiant and skilled men and women place their lives in peril to save the lives of others. Whether they are full-time firefighters or on-call volunteers, our firefighters are a critical first line of defense.
National Fire Prevention Week, which is observed Oct. 6-12, reminds us of another crucial role firefighters play. In addition to responding to emergencies, they work to educate and inform the people they serve to prevent disasters from occurring. As the theme of National Fire Prevention Week 2019 states, not all heroes wear capes.
As co-chair of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, I recognize that our gratitude must be matched by the resources firefighters need to meet all challenges. I have worked to boost funding for the FIRE and SAFER grants programs because I have seen first-hand in visits across Maine how these programs build the capabilities of our local fire departments and safeguard our firefighters.
On September 11, 2001, Fire Captain Paddy Brown summed up the courage of a firefighter in just four words. Amid the suffocating smoke, searing flames, and falling debris of the South Tower’s 35th floor, he stated in his last communication to the outside world: “We’re still heading up.”
Most of us will never know where such bravery comes from. We can’t begin to imagine the courage and dedication it takes to enter a burning building or approach a blazing truck or railroad car that may be about to explode. We can only dimly grasp the skill and discipline it takes to rescue and tend to a victim of a fire or accident in the midst of confusion and danger. But we are deeply grateful to the men and women who take this courage and dedication, this skill and discipline, with them to work every day.