A first responder looks out for his own
Longtime Cetronia employee shares story of his son’s death.
Chuck Deprill was nervous. He was standing before a conference room filled with fellow first responders and, after years of agony and guilt, he was finally ready to tell them the story of Corey, his firefighter son.
The first responders were Deprill’s people. He spent a lifetime alongside them, building both his career and family around a
desire to help others. Deprill’s wife is a paramedic and their two sons served as volunteer firefighters eager to help others, often at the worst time of their lives.
As Deprill stood at the front of the room for that October conference of first responders, he didn’t have to practice what to say. He knew how to speak their language.
“After almost 50 years in EMS, I don’t want someone to think they have to hide it when they have a problem,” Deprill said. “We are no better, no different than the people we care for. We face the same problems they have, and need to remember that for each call.”
This would be the first time Deprill would share Corey’s story. He felt the first responders needed to hear it, that it might save a life.
From “dumb kids” to first responders
As an emergency medical technician, Deprill often brought his young sons — Michael and Corey — with him on calls that interrupted the family’s dinner or holiday plans. Although he would tell the boys to stay in the car when he went to help, they rarely obeyed.
“They wanted to be right there in the middle of the action with me,” Deprill recalled during an interview. “And I understand that. How could I not?”
For nearly five decades, Deprill has worked for Cetronia and several other departments as an EMT. His wife, Susan, is a paramedic, and their oldest son, Michael, is a firefighter and 911 dispatcher.
Serving others and giving back to the community is something the Deprills instilled in both of their sons — and both fell in love with firefighting.
At age 16, Corey began as a volunteer firefighter with the Fogelsville Fire Company. He enjoyed it so much he went to fire academy and eventually achieved Firefighter 1 status, an expertise not always required for volunteer departments.
At Corey’s side at Fogelsville was longtime friend Jason Eckert, who now works as a paramedic in Macungie.
Both grew from “young, dumb kids hanging out at the fire company” to experienced first responders who learned under the patient guidance of the Deprills and other professionals, Eckert said.
At least once a week, Eckert said, he would visit Corey and if he smelled dinner cooking, knew he didn’t need an invite from the Deprills — he called them “Mom and the Old Man.” Eckert knew he had an automatic seat at the table where much of the talk would be about fire calls or ambulance runs.
“Just take this”
“The greatest thing about first responders is they are all family and everyone knows each other,” said Eckert, who lives in North Whitehall Township. “There are times you don’t even have to tell them what’s going on with each other. They can almost sense it.”
But it seemed no one sensed Corey’s struggles.
Corey was 20 when he needed surgery to repair a hernia he suffered in his full-time job as driver of a wheelchair van. Corey needed to return to work sooner than expected and was still dealing with pain when, his father said, a friend offered his son Oxycontin, an opioid painkiller.
“He said, ‘Here, Corey. Just take this. It will knock the pain right out,’ ” Deprill said. “And that was the beginning ... ”
Corey was able to hide his addiction from nearly everyone. Eckert said the only sign was that Corey began to separate himself a bit from his beloved firefighters, hanging out with a different group that would snowmobile and ride motorcycles.
“Corey was just keeping to himself more and seemed to have some off days, but I didn’t pry details from him,” Eckert said.
Even though Deprill and his family, as first responders, know all the signs and symptoms of drug use, they missed them until Corey’s first arrest in 2009 for theft. That’s when all the details of his addiction came tumbling out.
Drug experts say the overwhelming majority of those addicted turn to heroin the same way Corey did — he could no longer get prescription painkillers.
Deprill said he realized after the arrest his son had spun wild tales to cover up his behavior and signs of drug use.
Deprill uncurled his arm and pointed to the inner elbow — that’s where he’d see punctures and marks left behind from Corey shooting up heroin.
“He’d say, ‘Dad, I was climbing a tree and the branches scraped my arm,’ ” Deprill said. “And I believed it because he liked to do stupid stuff like that. He’s been a storyteller all his life and I didn’t realize what he was telling me wasn’t true.”
Fearing the worst
Deprill said his son thought he could control his addiction, but it ravaged his life. He stole from his parents and wiped out their bank accounts. Corey owed money to drug dealers — they broke into the Deprills’ home and stole a television and small items.
Corey had to leave his beloved fire crew after he stole $90 worth of gasoline from the department to support his habit.
“He kept telling me, ‘I got this, I can handle this,’ ” Deprill said, tears in his eyes. “And I was like, ‘You have no clue what you’re into.’ ”
Corey went to rehab twice, but it took a stint in jail before he was finally clean. After his release, Corey was clean for 10 months and Deprill said he finally felt hope — Corey was more determined than ever to not return to heroin.
When Corey went silent for several days in 2011, not answering his cellphone, Deprill feared the worst.
Corey died June 25 that year from a heroin and fentanyl overdose. He was alone in his parked car, surrounded by several empty bags with a needle still in his arm, Deprill said.
“It was the same number of bags he used to shoot at the height of his addiction,” Deprill said, breaking down. “He was going all in, I guess.”
The day Eckert learned of Corey’s death is one he said he’ll never forget. He got a call from a friend and even years later, Eckert said the pain is still fresh.
“Corey had done some silly things and I had heard a rumor he was using heroin and needles, but you could never tell,” Eckert said. “Corey was always surrounded with a group of friends and it wasn’t something he showed us ever.”
No time to “sit back”
As the years passed, Deprill said he didn’t shy away from telling people how Corey died — if asked. But he kept his loss mostly to himself.
Then in 2016, as the opioid crisis started killing hundreds each year in the Lehigh Valley, Deprill heard about a community meeting at Whitehall High School. He went and saw families grill authorities for answers about how to get treatment for their addicted loved ones, and how to get drug dealers off the street and stem the growing number of deaths.
Deprill stood in the back of the standing-room-only crowd and didn’t participate.
As the crowd cleared, a young woman recognized Deprill and introduced herself. She was a friend of Corey’s whom Deprill didn’t recognize. She told Deprill that his son had saved her life during a drug overdose.
“Corey was there and sober and he was able to give her Narcan to reverse it,” Deprill said. “And, it happened just a few months before he died from the same fate.”
After the overdose, the woman told Deprill, she moved out of the area and was able to overcome her addiction.
After he heard how his son saved a life, Deprill put aside whatever pain, self-recrimination and regret he felt and stepped out to again serve and give back to the community — just as he had taught his boys.
“That moment is when I knew I needed to continue,” Deprill said. “It wasn’t enough for me to sit back and say nothing.”
That path led him to talk in front of that October conference of first responders.
“I was really scared to do it,” he said, “but once I spoke, I felt right at home.”
Longtime emergency medical technician Chuck Deprill shows a photo memorial to his firefighter son who died from an overdose after fighting an opioid addiction.