WILMINGTON, Del. — An emotional tribute Saturday to two Wilmington firefighters killed in a house fire focused on their steadfast commitment to public service and courage, even in the face of incredible odds and treacherous conditions.
Emergency personnel from across the country attended the ceremony for the men, the first city firefighters to die in the line of duty in almost two decades.
"Today we come together to honor two heroes,” said fire Chief Anthony Goode, at the start of the memorial to Lt. Christopher Leach and Senior Firefighter Jerry Fickes, who died in a Canby Park rowhouse fire Sept. 24.
Organizers anticipated at least 5,000 people would be at the event, held at the Chase Center on the Riverfront, the third day of services for the firefighters.
Attendees included Vice President Biden, who spoke of his family’s own losses, and wife Jill Biden.
"I know how dark it is,” Biden said to the family members of the firefighters, alluding to the death of his son Beau from brain cancer last year. “Jill and I have some idea how dark it is for you.”
He said the firefighters showed incredible bravery.
“I visited the scene with the chief, and all I could think was, 'what incredible courage it took for all of them to step through that door,' ” Biden said.
Biden also referenced the time when firefighters got him to the hospital in a blizzard when he had an aneurysm, responded when his home caught fire.
“You’re crazy,” Biden said to the legions of firefighters gathered, flashing a grin and stirring the only loud laughter of the event. “The risks you take — you’re the single most under-appreciated profession in the world.”
Leach, 41, was a 14-year veteran of the Fire Department and Fickes, 51, a 13-year veteran. The last firefighter to die on the job was in 1998.
Leach and Fickes were inside the brick rowhouse early Sept. 24 when the floor gave way, fire officials said. Two of their comrades, Ardythe Hope and Brad Speakman, remain hospitalized. Three other firefighters also were injured and released shortly after the blaze.
Goode, whose own father, fire Lt. James Goode Jr., died of a heart attack at a city fire station, said he struggled all week to come up with words that would be "elegant enough or strong enough to capture my feelings," but settled on three.
"We love you," he said. "We will be forever grateful for the sacrifices that Christopher and Jerry and their families have made for us."
Goode posthumously promoted Leach to captain and Fickes to lieutenant and awarded both the department's Medal of Honor and Individual Valor honor. The auditorium sat silent, riveted, as he presented the new rank badges and medals to the men's family.
U.S. Rep. John Carney, D-Del., on Saturday said Leach and Fickes were heroes — men who ran into danger.
“As I look out into this big crowd, I can feel the pain. You can see and know that our whole state is hurting. Our hearts are so full of grief," he said.
Said U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., “We realize there is little that any of us can say or do to make up for the loss of the men you love. But we want you to know that you are not alone, that we will shelter you with our love, with our kindness and with our prayers.”
Funerals for Leach and Fickes were held Friday, and Saturday's event is a chance for the public and first-responders to pay their respects.
It was no surprise to the hundreds standing in line outside the Chase Center their ranks spanned the nation.
The men and women there, almost all in dress uniforms indicating their rank and station, spoke the words “brotherhood” and “duty” without hesitation, and many felt they were there to offer the same respect their fallen comrades once were shown.
“Our department, we had a double line-of-duty death in 2013,” said Gerald Burnett, a fire inspector from Bryan, Texas. “It really made a big difference when so many people came, stepped forward to help us. A lot of folks from this region helped us. It was a priority. Our fire chief puts a high priority on it.”
Burnett and others from his department traveled by air to attend the ceremony, plans he said that were in the works almost from the moment the news reached the Lone Star State. Having known personally the men lost in 2013, Burnett said there was no question of his attendance Saturday.
“With firefighters, we all like to imagine our brothers and sisters are invincible,” Burnett said. “We live in a little bit of denial about it, I think.”
Wilmington Fire Department chaplain the Rev. Brad Martin started the memorial by thanking those gathered.
“We are forever grateful to you,” he said. "It means more than you can ever know that you have come into our dark night."
He said Leach and Fickes made the ultimate sacrifice.
“It is to their sacrifice we give witness, we remember them, we will never forget,” he said, before the bagpipes and drums played Amazing Grace.
There was no question in the long line of firefighters the loss of two professionals was a blow to morale that would nevertheless leave the city’s citizens no less protected than the day before the tragedy.
“The residents should have confidence in their fire service and know they’re still fully protected. It was an unfortunate tragedy that took place, but they’re still in good hands with the city of Wilmington and the state of Delaware,” said Paul Johnson, of the Delaware City Fire Department.
Investigators have charged Beatriz Fana-Ruiz, 27, the daughter of the home's owner, with setting the fire that caused the first floor of the burning building to collapse. According to court records, she told investigators she had been angry and started the fire.
It's unclear what caused Fana-Ruiz to become angry. Eight people were inside the house at the time, according to court records.
She is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, first-degree arson, assault and reckless endangerment and is being held on $6 million cash bail.
The enormous and diverse presence of first responders at Saturday’s ceremony served a twofold purpose, firefighters said. They were there to honor the fallen, but just as importantly to remind the families who’ve lost members they aren’t alone.
“We just, unfortunately, had a line-of-duty death. We know what they’re going through and we’re just here to support them,” said Capt. Clifford Gilliam from the Philadelphia Fire Department. “For them to pull up and see a line of firefighters as long as they can see lets them know their loved ones were part of another family, and they are truly missed.”
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