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Why Are Some Memories So Vivid When Others Quickly Fade?

The headline from “The Hawk Eye” newspaper on December 23, 1999 read: They Gave The Ultimate.

Asst. Chief Dave McNally, 49 at the time, Firefighter Jason Bitting, 29 at the time and Nathan “Nate” Tuck, 39 at the time all died in the line of duty while trying to rescue three children from an apartment fire. The three children also perished.

Three children who saw their entire life ahead of them and three firefighters who saw their sworn duty and would stare Death in its face died in the same apartment on the same day on Tuesday, December 22, 1999.

That day and the days that followed are so vivid to me even after sixteen years. Yes; it has been sixteen years and all of those kids at the time are all grown up. Four families, a fire department and an entire community that was shocked into deep, sorrowful feelings of utter despair and loss back then have moved on.

On the day of the memorial-December 26th-a small 2”x3” card with a poem and red ribbon attached to it was handed to attendees and I still have mine. It reads:

Silent Flames

In desperate flames they called out names

But only a few could hear them,

They struggle through, the darkness grew,

The heat intense with rhythm,

Their heroes came to light the way

To find no one was with them

And in the end six souls were lost,

But their songs will stay within us.

-       Maria Estrada

As we left town, we felt compelled to go to Franklin Street and view the incident scene. We parked, got out and walked the property. To this day, I can visualize that house in its aftermath of devastation. I can see the mother on the porch roof screaming to the responding firefighters as they arrived that her babies were still inside.

And ANY firefighter will tell that THAT changes everything!

The NIOSH report wasn’t very kind in its findings. However; the best examination of this tragic incident came from Keokuk Fire Department Chief Mark Wessel in an interview that I did with Mark in 2004. The interview is no longer up on the Internet, but I could re-print it with Chief Bobby Halton’s permission.

Chief Billy Goldfeder in his introduction to my interview with Mark said this:

Chief Mark Wessel is a fire chief like many of us-and like many of us, started off at the bottom rung and worked his way up. He has responded to numerous fires, rescues and related emergencies and has reacted like many of us-from the good to the bad-from the happy to the sad. And like many of us, has tried to do the best he can with what he has to work with-from the budgets to the equipment to the firefighters. Just another hard working fire chief in the USA.

 Things changed drastically for Chief Wessel and the members of the Keokuk FD in 1999 when not only were 3 children lost in a fire-but 3 of his firefighters as well. The actual story can be found below. My comments are related from a more personal standpoint as far as the "before and after" of when bad stuff, real bad stuff happens.

 So often in the fire service, we never learn. In some cases, even tragic events don't change the behaviors of a fire department....even when it happens to them! And that only makes the event more tragic. But in recent times, as horrible as some losses have been, there are some leaders that have tried hard all along-but when the bad occurs, have the guts and leadership to effect change-no matter what the barriers. One such excellent example of that is Chief Mark Wessel. Chief Wessel could have taken many "roads" following this tragic event but that's not the kind of person he is. It is clear to anyone, once they talk to him, that they will understand that he had the courage to MAKE THE CHANGES and will discuss and share what happened in Keokuk with firefighters anywhere so "that" does not happen to them. Kind of a "history repeating itself" prevention officer. He shares what they did wrong, what they did right and how ANY FD can learn from the horror that he and his firefighters went through. His message is clear-this kind of event does NOT have to happen to you and while yes-he has enacted some very radical changes, Mark's focus is what all of ours should be everyday-that EVERY FIREFIGHTER RETURNS HOME AFTER EVERY ALARM.

Mark has made it his Life’s work to share every intimate detail of what happened on that fateful day and the days following. There wasn’t anyone harder on him than himself! Through it all, he remained strong and remained on the Keokuk, IA Fire Department as chief.

How many of you could lose your assistant chief, who was also Mark’s best friend, an up-and-coming firefighter with a thirst to learn and a firefighter who was all about community service AND STAY UPRIGHT AND PRODUCTIVE? Where do you find the strength to keep moving forward?

From my interview, Mark states: the only way I can describe where the strength comes from is through God and everyone’s prayers.  That day was one of the most, if not the most horrible day of my life.  The loss of our brothers has been horrible to say the least.  The only way I can describe how I am able is simply this: I relive the day in my mind, every day.  I will never forget the horror for the families, the firefighters, the community, and myself.  All I have left are opportunities to share the experience in hopes someone, somewhere, will be safer.

He describes his best friend on the department, AC Dave McNally: Dave and I knew each other before we were ever hired onto the department.  We weren’t what you would call running buddies, but occasionally would hang out together.  Dave and I were hired about a year apart.  He more senior to me.  I guess to give a perspective of how are careers evolved, I’ll give a quick and dirty.  Mid 70’s; both firefighters.  Early ’81, Dave became a Lieutenant and I was a firefighter on his shift.  In 1983, I became a Lieutenant and we were on different shifts.  In 1988, I was promoted to Assistant Chief.  Dave was my Lt. In 1995, Dave was appointed Assistant Chief.  In 1997, I was appointed Chief.  Dave was the best.  I would have followed him anywhere.

Of Firefighter Jason Bitting: Jason is kind of hard for me.  I think because of the age difference.  A big teddy bear!  So strong, so willing, so intelligent, yet still remaining naïve enough to have a burning desire to live and to learn.  Jason was the kind of person you had to love.

And of Nate Tuck, Mark says:  I think Nate was all about helping.  It really didn’t matter what he was doing, just so he could help someone.  High school kids seemed to be his passion.  His personality was just right for them.  Nate was so compassionate.  Always encouraging.  That can be an allusive trait to find today.

Actually, all three of the guys were so special.  I was able to fill the vacant positions, but could never replace those three special firefighters.

As I close, I will leave this in Chief Mark Wessel’s own words: As it is written in Job, “Should we accept the good that is given and not accept the bad?”  Life sometimes throws a curve and we take it on the chin.  I knew even as a firefighter I had a responsibility to others.  My partner was relying on me for his safety.  Then as I was promoted, others were relying on me as well.  Eventually the department became my responsibility, and things went bad.  I had always thought that I operated safely. 

Sometimes your eyes get opened unexpectedly.  You don’t have to experience what Keokuk experienced.  Why is it, we all know if we are punched in the nose, it is going to hurt like hell?  Yet some of us still have to pick a fight to believe it. Let Keokuk be your punch in the nose.  Let our incident be your incident.  Study it.  Pick it apart.  Plug it into your operating procedures.  Not just what is written, but how you actually operate on the scene.  For most, you will probably find there are some major discrepancies in your written procedures and your everyday, take it for granted, on scene operations.  You have the ability to “Make the Changes”.  Do you have the desire?  If not let someone else lead.  From the bottom to the top, you must be willing to step forward.  Not stand back, not stand still.  This is not a social club.  If you think it is, ask your family if the social pleasure is worth the risk?  If you are not willing to train, then get out.  Fishing is much more relaxing, but learn to swim first. 

The opinions and views expressed are those of the article’s author, Art Goodrich, who also writes as ChiefReason. They do not reflect the opinions and views of, Fire Engineering Magazine or PennWell Corporation. All articles by the author are protected by federal copyright under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie© umbrella and cannot be reproduced in any form without expressed permission from the author.


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