by PJ Rooks
Riverside Fire Division Chief Gordon Fowlston recently briefed city aldermen about his trip to help with the funerals of the “Hotshots” firefighters who were killed while battling an Arizona wildfire on June 30.
In a later interview with The Landmark, Fowlston said that he and two other Missouri firefighters, one from Gower and one from Sedalia, left at 4:00 p.m. on July 7 and arrived in Prescott, Arizona at about 11:30 p.m., Kansas City time, the following day.
“We hit the ground running out there,” Fowlston said. “We had to help prepare two trucks. We call them caissons, but they carried the caskets of some of the fallen firefighters.”
His group was tasked with helping arrange seven of the 12 funerals that were to be held locally.
It was past 2 a.m. when they got to bed the first night, he said, and they were back up and in a meeting by 7:30 the next morning.
“Our whole week consisted of getting about three hours of sleep a night,” he said.
“Our trailers are stocked with American flags, the National Fallen Firefighter flags, stands to put the flags on, a battery-operated remote (public address) system, the equipment to put the caskets up inside the fire trucks—this is everything we provide and this is all done with donations,” he said.
Additionally, almost 300 departments and 800 to 1,000 personnel helped put these memorial services together, Fowlston said.
“We never would have gotten it done without the other hundreds of guys that were making sure that we had chairs, plants, flowers, chainsaws, or that the Hotshots gear made it to the church and then made it to the cemetery,” said Fowlston. “All those guys helped make it happen. We never would have pulled it off without them.”
Other Hotshots firefighters were in attendance at most of the services.
“At one of the services they lined the road all the way down to the lake up in the mountains and as the fire truck passed with the fallen firefighter in it, they knelt as it went by,” he said.
Fowlston said three of the services he helped with were held in the mountains.
“One of the sites was the Granite Mountain Basin, which is where the team took their name, the Granite Mountain Hotshots,” said Fowlston. They had put out a fire at this location just two weeks prior to the tragedy that took their lives.
At another service, flowers enough to fill two semi-trailer trucks had accumulated at the funeral location and the wife of the firefighter asked if she could use them in her husband's service. The next day, Fowlston said, she spoke at his funeral.
“There was probably 1,500 people in this building and there wasn't a person that walked out of this building that didn't have tears in their eyes,” Fowlston said.
Later, she asked him if her speech had seemed weird and told Fowlston that she had felt the need to speak to her husband through those words.
“That was kind of one of our more touching moments I guess for me,” said Fowlston. “She had four kids. I have four kids. It kind of brought some things near and dear to me, just seeing her with her kids. It is too bad that that had to happen to them. But her attitude was pretty good about it. (She said) he was doing what he loved to do. He wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else.”
Fowlston said that although these big events are few and far between, these fire service teams get called out way too often.
“Line of duty deaths in the fire service—we average about 90 a year,” he said of firefighter fatalities across the United States. “Some people think that's not bad but to me it's too many.”
For this year so far he estimated about 50 or 60 line of duty fatalities and said that the number is high both because of the tragedy in Arizona and also from a Texas fertilizer plant that exploded killing 12 public safety workers.
Fowlston said they arrived home around noon on Monday, July 15.
“For me it was an honor,” he said. “I am very privileged that the city that I work for allowed me to do that with no questions asked. In Riverside we're a little fortunate—we have those resources.”
The Missouri Fire Service Funeral Assistance Team will hold a Murder Mystery Dinner Theater fundraiser on August 24 at the White Chapel Funeral Home, 6600 Antioch Road, Gladstone. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. for the 7 p.m. show and the event will be catered by Hawg Jaw Fritz BBQ.
Tickets are $45 and benefit the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. For more information, contact John Hesson at 816-596-6718.