On Thursday March 24th six firefighters from Russell along with thirty five others from around Prescott Russell travelled to the small town of Listowel Ontario to attend the funeral for Kenneth Rae and Raymond Walter, two volunteer firefighters who were killed in the line of duty on March 17th. It was decided by the chiefs of the Prescott Russell departments that a bus would be chartered for those wishing to attend the funeral, that way the trip could be done in one day without having many different drivers having to make the long trek north of Kitchener. Because the funeral began at 2:00pm it was necessary that the bus leave our meeting place in Casselman at 4:00am, so after a 2:45am wake-up call it was off to Casselman to start the day. After a quick stop for some of Tim Horton’s finest wake-up juice we arrived at the bus, and it was great to see so many familiar faces that also decided to make the journey to honour these two gentleman. Maybe it was because of the lack of sleep or just the way many firefighters are, the discussion for much of the trip remained light and often humorous, there was very little mention of the fire or the circumstances that may have caused the deaths of these two men. There is something inherently distinctive about firefighting and firefighters, the subject of danger and possible death are not often discussed between us, maybe we are simply burying our heads in the sand but it simply isn’t a topic many of us chose to discuss. That is not to say it isn’t discussed officially or during training, it’s just that the topic is not one many will chose to touch on when we gather socially. Besides we knew the trip to Listowel was going to take at least seven hours and the emotional toll once we arrived would no doubt make for a mentally draining day, so for now we kept things light. As we entered our fourth hour of travel we had the wearisome experience of having to get across the city of Toronto during the morning rush hour. It was at this moment that I had the revelation that there was nothing anyone could ever say or do to convince me to move to this city, and to anyone who has complaints about getting past the Orleans split on the 417, I suggest making this trip for a little dose of reality.
Finally after eight hours on the bus we arrived in the town of Listowel and the collective mood began to change. The sense of loss for this small community was immediately evident; black ribbons were tied to almost everyone’s home and street post throughout the town. Sign boards normally reserved for announcing retail sales or community events all had messages of sorrow reserved for “their heroes”. Even the businesses on the main street were closed down for the day so that everyone could properly mourn this loss, it was very clear that this community was still reeling from the shock of this tragedy.
The town of Listowel is very much like Russell; a population of around 6,000, a little bit more of a business district, but other than that the similarities much outweigh the differences. The arena, as in many small towns, is the place where most important events take place, and today the Listowel Memorial Arena was going to serve as the place where the lives of two local heroes would be celebrated and remembered.
In the firefighting business the term “Line of Duty Death” is one that makes all firefighters take notice, as mentioned we may not talk openly about the dangers of firefighting, but a line of duty death is like the cold hand of reality giving you a hard smack right in the face. It makes you think back to calls where something could have gone wrong, or you put yourself in the position of those who died and realize you may not have done anything different than they did. In the case of Ken and Ray, questions have been raised as to why they were in the building in the first place. Could they have been told someone was in the building? We still don’t know, however today was not the time to dissect what went wrong, today was the day to honour the sacrifice these men made to protect others.
I have attended a line of duty funeral once before; 20 year old James Ratcliffe of the Hudson Quebec Fire Department who died in June 2005. And in both cases I was amazed at how quickly things come together and get organized. Even though you show up with very little information with regards to the arrangements, it seems everything comes together in seamless fashion. After leaving the bus, our group was ushered to a street where the out of town firefighters were gathering, up until now we saw very little evidence of visiting firefighters and thought that maybe the foul weather the day before convinced many to stay at home. That thought quickly vanished when we rounded the corner and were faced with a sea of dark blue uniforms that stretched as far as you could see. Now “as far as the eye can see” is a common exaggeration, but in this case the phrase was more than appropriate because when we were told to go to the end of the line, we couldn’t see where this might be. As we walked up the road, we passed at least four or five blocks before we came to our place, we were eventually positioned in front of a long line of police service men and women who also assembled to march in honour of Ken and Ray. After a few minutes a good number of other firefighters lined up behind us for at least another block. The organizers arranged the column to march four abreast and the parade of firefighters would follow a pipe and drum band and the two hearses that carried the bodies of Ken and Ray. About midway through the procession one of the organizers informed us that the caskets had been at the arena for approximately fifteen minutes and that we have one kilometer left to march. In the end the column was around 1 ½ kilometers long and they estimate anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 firefighters and police came to town to honour these two local heroes.
As I mentioned before, this was the second time I have done this and the feeling one gets from an event like this is hard to put into words. When 10,000 firefighters flood a town like this it’s hard not to imagine that the image would be one of taking over, but this isn’t the case. For both Ken Rae and Ray Walter, the residents of Listowel were their friends, their neighbors, and in some cases, their family. I didn’t know Ken or Ray and in all likelihood we would probably have never met. However on this day I knew I had to be in Listowel to attend their funeral because they were “one of us”. As I marched along the main street of Listowel I had the feeling that I was with my people, my extended family, people who would do the same thing for me if I were in one of those caskets. I think to a person as we marched along we could see our own main street and our own landmarks in place of Listowel’s. God forbid it would ever happen, but it is the possibility you face if you choose to enter burning buildings. In my case I thought of all the people I work with at the Russell Fire Department, I thought how heartbreaking this must be to the firefighters of North Perth who knew these men personally. They know the families of these men, just like I know the families in our department. How do you face them and tell them everything is going to be alright when you know it’s not. As a family they will eventually get on with their lives, but they will never get their loved one back. You tell them that they are still a part of the fire department family and that everyone will always be there for them no matter what, but who could blame them for never wanting to see you or a fire truck ever again. Fortunately though it is not me or members of our department who have to deal with this, and while marching along Main Street Listowel I remembered the words Bob Geldof used in his song about African hunger; “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”, truer words could not have been spoken.
Finally when our part of the procession arrived at the arena the funeral was already half over, we missed the eulogies and many other parts of the service but that was fine for me. My part in the funeral was to be there as a show of support, one part of a greater number. However as I stood outside the arena I looked at the many different patches on the shoulders of the firefighters around me, some of the places I recognized, others I didn’t. From the large city departments like; Toronto, Ottawa and Mississauga to the small villages they were all there for the same reason. At the end of the funeral I noticed a few firefighters standing in the street with United Sates Flags on their uniforms, I walked up to one of them and extended my hand to him. Upon shaking hands I said “Thank you for being here” he simply responded “Your welcome” I walked on. No names were exchanged, none were needed, and we will likely never meet again. However we both know that if another firefighter dies in the line of duty, we will both show up to give support as brothers once again.
Published in the Villager newspaper
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