Fallen firefighters honored as ‘authentic Delaware heroes’
Special from the Newark Post
— In the days following a deadly house fire that claimed the lives of two Wilmington firefighters, Wilmington Fire Department Chief Anthony Goode couldn’t sleep. He stayed awake at night, struggling to find the words to help the families and friends of Lt. Christopher Leach and Senior Firefighter Jerry Fickes fill the void in their hearts.
It took a little while before Goode realized the right words to say in a difficult time are actually quite simple.
“We love you,” he said. “We love you all.”
Thousands of of people, including hundreds of firefighters from departments across the country, came out to the Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington on Saturday to honor Leach, 41, and Fickes, 51, who died last weekend while battling a blaze in Wilmington’s Canby Park neighborhood.
When the firefighters entered the home, the floor collapsed, trapping three – Leach, Ardythe Hope and Brad Speakman – in the basement.
Fickes went into the house to save them, but fell when the floor collapsed further. Fickes, who had been employed by WFD for 13 years, died as a result of the collapse, as did Leach, a 14-year veteran of the department. Hope and Speakman are still in the hospital recovering.
Fickes was also a member of Newark’s Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Co. and at one time served as an assistant chief. He gave up a wellpaying job as an insurance actuary to take a full-time position with WFD.
On Saturday, Goode told the crowd at the Chase Center that he is grateful not only for the sacrifices Fickes and Leach made throughout their careers, but also the sacrifices their families made every time they sent them off to work.
When Leach died, he left behind three children, Brendan, 16; Abby, 14, and Megan, 12; as well as his fiancee, Kate, and her two sons, Landon and Casey. Fickes left behind his wife Laura, and two sons, 18-year-old Benjamin and 16-year-old Joshua.
Goode awarded both men with the Medal of Honor and Medal of Valor, which is given to firefighters who have completed an assignment under extremely hazardous conditions. He also postumously promoted Leach to captain and Fickes to lieutenant and then retired their badges from service, praising their hard work and dedication.
“Today, we come together to honor heroes,” Goode said. “Two giants who stood among men.”
U. S. Rep. John Carney said he felt the pain in the room, and he felt the pain this past week in Wilmington, Newark and across Delaware as he passed flag after flag flying at half-staff.
“Our whole state is hurting,” he said.
Carney said firefighters are among our earliest ideas of what a hero is and it’s because they are examples of the human spirit at its best – they make the world a safer place and they answer the call to lay down their lives to save a total stranger.
Often, he said, people throw around words like, “I’d walk through fire for you” or “I’d walk into a burning building for you,” when they want to show someone they care, but those aren’t just sayings to firefighters. “It’s what you do,” he said. Sen. Chris Coons echoed Carney’s remarks, referring to Fickes and Leach as “authentic Delaware heroes.”
“Whatever might possibly be wrong with America, I am convinced it can be fixed
with what’s best in America. And your sons represent what is best in America,” he said, addressing the parents of the fallen firefighters.
Vice President Joe Biden used his own personal experience with loss as a way to comfort the families of the fallen.
“Faith sees best in the dark, and I know how dark is,” he said.
Last year, Biden and his wife, Jill, lost their son, Attorney General Beau Biden, after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 46.
“Jill and I know there’s not a damn thing anybody can say to ease the pain,” Biden said. “We hope you, as we did, gain some solace from the fact that so many people, so many people understood, appreciate, knew, admired and absolutely are in awe of what your son, your dad, your brother, your husband did.”
Biden visited the scene of the fire in Canby Park hours after the tragedy and recalled that all he could think about was the amount of courage it must have taken for Fickes, who he called a “warrior,” to step through the door in order to save the trapped firefighters.
He said both men had immense integrity, confidence and loyalty, and while he didn’t know them personally, he knew them through the countless other firefighters who have helped him and his family over the years.
“Thank God, but you’re all crazy,” he said, which prompted laughs from the audience. “You’re the single most underrated profession in the world.”
He praised the hundreds of firefighters in the crowd for running toward danger instead of away and, in doing so, going against every human instinct and providing the hope that ordinary Americans can do extraordi- nary things.
As for the families of the fallen, he told them their grief will get better, and there will eventually come a time when the thought of their loved one will bring a smile to their face before it brings a tear.
“It’s not believable now, but it will come,” Biden said. “I promise you.”
Firefighters salute as a car carrying members of the Fickes family approaches.