Note: Chief Mark Wessel of Keokuk, IA Fire Department is to the left. I am to the right.
December, 1999 delivered a major blow to our brotherhood of firefighters.
On December 3, 1999, we lost six (6) Worcester, MA firefighters (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face9947.html) and then on December 22, 1999, we lost three (3) Keokuk, IA firefighters (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face200004.html).
At the time, little information was getting out on the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire, but I had friends near there who were conveying bits and pieces of information to me.
Then, I received the news on the fire in Keokuk, IA that claimed the lives of Assistant Chief Dave McNally, Firefighter Nathan Tuck and Firefighter Jason Bitting as they attempted the rescue of three, small children, who also perished in the fire.
The headline in the Thursday, December 23, 1999 edition of The Hawkeye newspaper read: “They Gave the Ultimate”.
While many were preparing for the Christmas holidays, many of us were preparing for the memorial services for Keokuk’s fallen heroes.
On Sunday, December 26, 1999, it would be the first time that I saw Chief Mark Wessel.
As I sat in the balcony of the high school and listened to the chief deliver not one, but THREE eulogies, I was taken by the clarity and force of his words and to marvel at his enormous, inner strength.
The families, including young children, sat directly in front of Chief Wessel standing at the podium; standing as if he were being judged by an entire community of citizens, friends, firefighters and God Himself.
From my interview with Chief Wessel, he states: “To be honest, I remember being mostly numb. I felt so humbled and responsible that all I could think about was the fact that no matter what words were said, they were not adequate. The entire ordeal was so far above my ability to comprehend, I just existed through the service. Fortunately, there were so many people that assisted myself and the Department, so that things ran smoothly. I will never be able to express my gratitude enough to all those people”.
After we left the memorial service, we felt compelled to go to the house of the fatal fire.
There were several like-minded firefighters from the services there walking around, standing, staring and speaking softly to each other. I guess that we were all there trying to make some sense of this tragedy.
I remember looking at that house and thinking to myself of how evil it looked and since then, I have had dreams about it. It stood out of place amongst the houses that were decorated for Christmas. Where other yards were blanketed with white snow, this house where six had died had a yard littered with burnt debris and black soot.
For the next two hours as we drove home, we talked about what we had seen at the memorial and at the house.
Then, in April of 2002, I saw Chief Wessel again.
It was at the Tazewell County Fire School in East Peoria, IL. Mark’s class was “The Disaster Has Become Personal”. I got to speak with him during breaks, which allowed me to learn more about this extraordinary person.
In September of 2004, I got to see Mark once again, when he spoke to a large group of firefighters in New Windsor, IL.
By then, I was blogging on a regular basis and had done some interviews, so I contacted the chief about giving me an interview that would be published at the IACOJ website. Since the interview appeared, I have had many requests for copies of it.
The interview went into great detail about the day that he lost his best friend/his assistant chief Dave McNally and two, rising stars in the Keokuk Fire Department-Nathan Tuck and Jason Bitting.
It was a very powerful piece and a very emotional experience for me; one that I will never forget.
In 2008, a local church wanted to honor area fire, EMS and police with a dinner banquet and they asked me if I knew of a speaker. It was a no-brainer. I gave them Chief Wessel’s contact information and to my delight, he accepted the invitation to speak.
I got to spend a lot of time with Mark before and after the banquet. I am so proud and honored to know him.
And though I think about Mark often, I especially do so at this time of the year, because I know that his thoughts are of those sad days in December of 1999.
I also know that those close to the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire have heavy hearts, too.
That is my point.
I want us to temper this “joyous holiday season” with a moment of reflection for those that we have lost.
That is my Christmas wish.
To those who have suffered a loss, please know that you are in our thoughts and prayers.
To the rest of you; count your blessings.