Mourning Three Fallen Firefighters in Wilmington, Delaware

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Skyline of Wilmington, Delaware as seen from the Riverfront.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

A brave woman died on Thursday night.  In the latest blow for the Wilmington Fire Department, Senior Firefighter Ardythe “Ardy” Hope died of injuries she sustained in a September fire that had already claimed two of her fellow firefighters’ lives.  Three line of duty deaths in a single incident is an unprecedented tragedy for Wilmington, Delaware, a city now known more for its homicide rate (among the highest in the country for a city its size) than being a center for culture, industry, and commerce.

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A Wilmington barber shop’s response to the epidemic of violence in the community.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2016

Wilmington has done its share of soul searching in the two years since a Newsweek article by Abigail Jones provocatively dubbed it “Murder Town USA“.  Once a leader in the shipbuilding industry, Wilmington is still a major financial center, its downtown dotted by high rises emblazoned with all the big names in banking.  The redevelopment of the Riverfront and Trolley Square were major success stories, but did not bring prosperity to the blighted areas of the city nearby.

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Wilmington Fire Department Engine 1, one of the units that responded to the Canby Park fire that cost the lives of three firefighters
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The old quarters for Senior Firefighter Hope’s unit, Engine 5. Until a recent move nearby, Engine 5 used the 1893 quarters that once belonged to Water Witch, a volunteer company that predated the establishment of the paid Wilmington Fire Department in 1921.

Up until now, I’ve written here exclusively about travel and photography.  However, I’ve also been a volunteer firefighter for over nine years.  Early on, I learned that tragedy is a constant companion of the fire service.  Firefighters witness what happens to the unfortunate victims of fires, car crashes, and medical calls, and frequently, the heartbreak of surviving family and friends.  Adopting a certain degree of detachment from the suffering is necessary in order to have a productive career in the fire service.  But that emotional shield is practically useless when the victim is one of our own.  Or in this case, three.

There initially appeared to be nothing unusual about the fire dispatched at 1927 Lakeview Road in the development of Canby Park just before 3 am on the morning of September 24, 2016.  The fire was located in a row home in the west end of the city, the sort of incident that has been described as WFD’s bread and butter.

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A typical Wilmington street; this one in one of the nicer areas of the city, Trolley Square

Although the fire was known to be in the basement, responding personnel heard conflicting reports about whether all occupants had escaped or whether some were still trapped.  (Basement fires are extremely dangerous to firefighters for a number of reasons.  One is that firefighters may have to operate on floors that, while visually intact, have actually been weakened by the fire below; this weakening process is especially rapid in unfinished basements where structural members have no protection.)  Lieutenant Christopher Leach, who was serving as the officer in charge of Ladder 2, apparently believed there were victims trapped on the upper floor and was desperate to make the stairs and lead a search.  After entering the building, the floor collapsed and Lieutenant Leach fell into the heavily involved basement.

A mayday was declared and other firefighters were attempting to rescue him when a secondary collapse occurred.  Lieutenant Leach and Senior Firefighter Jerry Fickes died that night, while four other firefighters sustained injuries.  Although two were quickly treated and released, Ardy Hope and Brad Speakman suffered severe burns and were transported to the regional burn center at Crozer-Chester.  In perhaps the only bright spot in this entire story, Speakman was finally discharged from the hospital after six weeks.

To make matters worse, authorities soon determined that the fire was no accident.  The homeowner’s daughter, Beatriz Fana-Ruiz, was arrested for murder after allegedly confessing that she’d started the fire in the basement following an argument with other occupants, inexplicably attributing her actions to being under the influence of alcohol and anxiety medication.  It surely must have been a bitter blow to Lt. Leach’s family to learn that his life was allegedly claimed by one of the very people he had tried so hard to save.

If that wasn’t heartbreaking enough, it also emerged that Engine 6—the closest engine to the fire scene and Lieutenant Leach’s regular unit—had been placed out of service the night of the fire in an effort to save money on overtime.  The WFD policy, known as “conditional company closures” was quietly suspended immediately after the fatal fire, but reinstated two months later over vehement objections from the firefighters’ union.

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Firefighters and apparatus assemble at the Chase Center in Wilmington to pay tribute to the fallen.

On October 1, 2016 I joined hundreds of other brothers and sisters in attending a memorial service for Leach and Fickes at the Chase Center at the Wilmington Riverfont.  Although I didn’t know either man personally, Fickes was also a member of my volunteer company in addition to his full time job in Wilmington.  Firefighters lined the road leading to the center, saluting the families as they arrived before filing inside for the service.

Speakers included Wilmington Fire Department Chief Anthony Goode, whose own father died while serving as a WFD firefighter.  The chief announced posthumous promotions for both men.  Delaware’s senators and congressman also spoke, mostly repeating well-meaning platitudes like the one about firefighters being heroes who run into burning buildings when everyone else is running out.

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Vice President Joe Biden speaking at the memorial service for Lieutenant Leach and Senior Firefighter Fickes

Perhaps the most memorable speaker was also the highest profile: the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden.  As a senator and vice president, Joe Biden has been a friend to the fire service since before I was born.  But the popular view of Biden is shaped by media coverage of his gaffes (summed up perfectly by this clip from the Daily Show), leading to a persona Evan Osnos explains in The New Yorker that Biden bitterly refers to as “the Uncle Joe Syndrome—the image of a dopey, undisciplined good ol’ boy.”

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The man in Wilmington that day was certainly not “Uncle Joe”, the goofball with a thousand radiant smiles (except when he wryly told the assembled firefighters, “You’re crazy” for taking on such a risky job).  Biden spoke to the victims’ families with the credibility of a man who had endured the unimaginable pain of burying not only a wife, but also two of his children.  Acknowledging that there was nothing he could tell the families that would lessen their pain now, he told them that a day would come—hopefully sooner rather than later—when recalling a memory about their loved ones would bring joy rather than just pain.

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Wilmington’s ladder trucks displaying a flag outside the memorial service.  One of the victims, Lieutenant Christopher Leach, was the officer in charge of Ladder 2 during the fire.

During the memorial service, I recall one of the politicians saying that the fallen firefighters represented what was best about America.  He was certainly correct, but I couldn’t help but think that what happened to them represented what was worst about America, too.  So many lives were destroyed because a woman inexplicably burned the place she was living over an argument.  It didn’t seem like any amount of engagement, education, or investment would have prevented such an irrational, self-destructive act.

In a bitter end to the story, Ardy Hope died December 1 after a 68-day fight in the burn unit.  A 23-year WFD veteran and mother of three, Senior Firefighter Hope had been scheduled to retire in January in order to begin a new career as a nurse.  She was the first woman in the history of the Wilmington Fire Department to die in the line of duty.

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Image from wilmingtonfirefighters.org (IAFF Local #1590)

Despite their heartbreak, the members of Wilmington Fire Department continue to answer the call.  This coming Saturday, they will mourn the loss of Senior Firefighter Ardythe Hope at her funeral.  Sunday, they will suit up and get back on their apparatus.  Perhaps some are heartened by a message Lieutenant Leach sent to some of his fellow firefighters shortly before his death and which was recited at the memorial service: “Just remember keep doing your job…and do it well. That is what we do. Everything else will work itself out.”

To support the families of the WFD’s fallen firefighters, please visit IAFF Local #1590’s GoFundMe page.

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