Coos Bay Fallen: Anguish, Tributes Expressed

The close-knit community of firefighters joined hundreds of mournful townspeople Sunday in an emotional salute and farewell to the three Coos Bay firemen who lost their lives in a burning building last Monday.

The ceremony followed a procession through the twin communities of Coos Bay and North Bend that included more than 275 fire vehicles from about 100 fire departments across the Northwest.

To the strains of a bagpipe band made up of police and fire officials from the Portland area, nearly 1,200 firefighters filed into the Marshfield High School football stadium - trailing the Coos Bay and North Bend fire departments and dozens of family members of the three fallen firefighters.

With black strips of tape across their shields to mark their grief, fire service members in dress uniforms gathered under cloudy skies to honor their lost brethren - Lt. Randall Carpenter and firefighters Jeffrey Common and Robert "Chuck" Hanners.

Out-of-town fire personnel stood in ranks on the field for the service behind 600 seated local firefighters and the families of the lost men.

From the stands, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 civilians watched - standing in respect as the Carpenter, Common and Hanners families arrived and departed.

Gov. John Kitzhaber told those assembled that the whole state shared their grief.

"Today, every Oregonian is a Coos Bay firefighter," the governor said. "Today, every Oregonian is a member of this community. Today, every Oregonian has lost three members of their family."

The governor said the three firefighters were outstanding examples of "the selfless courage of those who plunge into harm's way." They were not heroes for a minute, an hour or a day, Kitzhaber said, but everyday heroes willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the common good.

The three men were killed when the roof caved in as they and fellow firefighters battled a blaze at the big Farwest Truck and Auto Supply Building on Second Street. Investigators determined the fire - apparently started in a pipe venting an adjacent machine shop's furnace - smoldered for hours in the wall and ceiling before turning into an inferno.

The deaths were the first ever for the Coos Bay department and the greatest loss of firefighters in a structure fire in Oregon history.

The pageantry-filled ceremony included a flyover by a single Coast Guard helicopter. A traditional "last alarm" sounded first from a bell, and then on the pagers of the Coos Bay and North Bend firefighters. The sound of a single mournful siren filled the stadium.

White-gloved honor guards folded three flags for presentation to family members, and a procession of speakers offered words of tribute.

"It was a brief moment that took their lives," Mayor Joe Benetti said. "But we cannot ever let that moment die. We must keep their memories alive."

Fire Chief Stan Gibson said the three firefighters had several common traits, including courage, initiative, skill and dedication to one another and their community. They were sons and husbands and fathers and brothers who touched many lives, he said.

Gibson thanked firefighters from throughout the state for pitching in and helping cover shifts so that members of his department could grieve. He also thanked the community for giving everything he and his firefighters needed during "the most terrible seven days" imaginable.

Representatives of the three families also offered remarks. Christopher Common, who was at sea on a tugboat when he heard of his son Jeff's death, expressed his gratitude for the "three beautiful children" his son left as part of his legacy.

In tribute to his father, Daniel Hanners read "The Fire Fighter's Prayer," which asks God to "bless with your protecting hand my family one and all" when death calls.

Carpenter's nephew, Kirk Carpenter, a fireman from Nampa, Idaho, drew an emotional response when he read letters written by Randall Carpenter's grown daughters, Sarah and Stephanie, after his death. Both mentioned their father's happy disposition and the wonderful bear hugs he so often gave them.

"I don't think words could express how much I would give for just one more," Sarah Carpenter said.

Kirk Carpenter expressed gratitude for the support given by the community to the families. "Your empathy has brought comfort at this difficult time," he said.

Some of the assembled firefighters could relate to the Coos Bay department's turmoil only too well. The Seattle Fire Department, for example, sent a fire engine, command vehicle, 10 firefighters and an honor guard.

"In 1995, we lost four firefighters," said Lt. Bob Myers of the Seattle department. "The pain is still there. We know what they are going through. It's very important we come and support them."

That support included a $12,000 contribution for the families of the three killed firefighters - $9,000 in donations from individual firefighters and the rest from relief and officer organizations within the department.

At such a tragic time, Myers said, firefighters may be tempted to retire or quit.

But part of the reason for the Seattle contingent coming, he said, was to reinforce the message that survivors in the department must carry on.

Mark Wessel, chief of the Keokuk, Iowa, Fire Department, learned of Coos Bay's loss when he got a call from Chief Gibson asking how his department handled a memorial service when it lost three firefighters in a house fire on Dec. 22, 1999.

Wessel told about the Iowa arrangements and offered to come to Oregon to support Gibson and his department in their time of need.

Wessel talked last week to members of the Coos Bay department about what they can expect ahead. He told him they would never get over their grief, but that the bonds among them will almost certainly grow stronger.

"And they will most probably become a better department," he said.

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