The haunting

Vancouver firefighter Wayne Jasper sports a large, red tattoo on his left shoulder.

He got the tattoo to commemorate the twelve friends he lost on 9/11. The images still play vividly in Wayne’s memory, pictures in time, from the days he spent helping out in the aftermath of that tragic day.

Wayne is an affable man who likes to wear his hair and mustache a little long. He comes to Ottawa every year, on the second Sunday in September to honor his friends, colleagues — many men he’s never met — as well as their families on what has come to be known as The Canadian Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend. Tomorrow, he’ll stand at attention for more than two hours as black helmets are passed to the wives, mothers and children of the Canadian firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty in the past year.

This year, three pilots will be honored, men who faced harrowing conditions to try to save the B.C. wildlands. Every year, we lose a few. Most are pilots, some crewmen fight in hellish conditions with heat so intense that their hearts explode.

There will be black helmets for volunteers, too who protect their communities at incredible personal cost to themselves and their families. Until recently, they received no compensation whatsoever; they were just being neighborly — and that cost them their lives.

And there will be the cancer victims, men who have died from colon cancer, brain cancer or lung cancer. There are more of these deaths every year.

These men — there have yet to be women casualties — will be honored by firefighters, many who have been to the brink themselves. There’s a corny line in the fire service.

We run in when everybody else runs out.

And sometimes they don’t come out.

Firefighters have all been there, carrying families out of burning buildings, trying to rescue family pets, looking into the eye of the monster. Many have had close calls. I remember seeing one young firefighter, a newbie, standing at the ceremony. She had her ears nearly burnt off her head and walked with a limp from the pins in both her legs, a fall caused when her captain threw her from a burning building before the flashover.

She didn’t look more than 25 years old.

There but for the grace of God, she might say.

I spent eight compelling Sundays on Parliament with these firefighters, people like Wayne, who every year volunteer their time to bring together the brothers and sisters of the Canadian Fire Service, under twin ladder trucks with the Canadian flag blowing between the two.

I got to know widows, like Rebeccah Erskine who was only in her early thirties when her husband Mark Johnston succumbed to colon cancer. It was just one of the hazards of the job, inhaling toxic fumes, working in desperate conditions. Mark stood over six feet tall, a former football player; in his last days he wasted away while his young children watched. I’ve been to Rebeccah’s house, and seen the beautiful memorial she created for her husband. Each child, at the time, had a tiny black bear on their bed, and a curio cabinet with Mark’s stuff — his football jersey, the black helmet, photographs of a man who died too young.

I’ve had a beer with Garry Morden, too, the fire chief of Mississauga, an affable fellow who was looking forward to retiring and playing with his grandkids. Sadly, Garry also succumbed to workplace cancer not long after our beer. In a scene I will not soon forget, I watched Gary at the fallen firefighter ceremony sitting, watching, knowing.

Indeed, the next year, a black helmet was awarded to Gary’s family.

It will be easy for the news media to forget these fallen heroes tomorrow in the flourish that will be 9/11.  They will be a small crowd on Parliament Hill compared to the millions gathered in New York City and elsewhere. But it’s comforting to know that in a sea of sorrow, in the midst of an international haunting, Wayne Jasper will be there to honor our own firefighters.

One life is not worth more than another.

Rest well, young men.

You will not be forgotten.


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