Speak Up: Connected Communities Honor Fallen Firefighters

T he date is March 19, 2013. The temperature is minus 8 degrees Celsius and the sky is bright blue in Medicine Hat, Alberta. The sound of a Highland piper playing “Flowers of the Forest” in the clear, crisp air can be heard for at least a mile in...


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Firefighter Ringler quickly chopped a hole through the floor to get at the fire below. On the final swing of his axe, there was a rush of deadly gas. Fire hoses quickly pushed it back in the hole, but it was too late to prevent a massive explosion. Ringler was blown toward the door, but miraculously escaped uninjured. Several other firefighters were blown clear of the building, including Lieutenant McLeod, who had no recollection how he and the others had escaped or survived. Captain Buchanan was tossed more than 60 feet by the blast, but his partner, John A. Brier, was killed where he stood. As the building collapsed many of the firefighters were narrowly missed by the heavy walls and were lucky to survive. Two of them, William Stewart and Reginald Rimmer, however, were killed when a brick archway collapsed inside.

The blast launched more than 25,000 square feet of roof three feet in the air, caused the building to fall and hurled thousands of red bricks into the street. All that was left of Malcolm Canneries Number Five was the rubble that littered the street. Five people died that afternoon, including three firefighters and two bystanders, a visitor from Boston, MA, named Charles Bohannan and Harry Green, a 12-year-old boy. Ten people were critically injured and three dozen more were wounded by flying or falling debris. There was mayhem on Main Street, yet the firefighters who were still standing forged on to restore order and to tend to the injured and dying.

 

Back to the present

Pender Island’s volunteer firefighters had offered to stand by for fire or medical emergencies at the inaugural launch of the Hope Bay Boat Days and Music Festival. Hope Bay is a waterfront commercial center on Pender Island, which lies between Vancouver and Victoria on the west coast of Canada. In 1998, the buildings at Hope Bay burned and collapsed to the ground. The rebuilding took years and the center is finally getting back on its feet. The sound of bagpipes and drums resounded in Hope Bay and the sea beyond as the event was opened in regal tradition by the Pender Highlanders.

Sue Foote, a Pender Island resident and one of the pipers that day, approached me at the fire truck to tell me a remarkable story. I was captivated by the pride and emotion displayed in her eyes as she depicted the amazing series of events that occurred in March of this year. The connections that unfolded in her story moved me to the core.

The story began with Sue’s planning of a memorial trip to Medicine Hat. She is the granddaughter of William Stewart, one of the firefighters killed in 1913. She would gather the family in recognition of her grandfather’s untimely death 100 years earlier. Her grandfather was of Scottish heritage and like her ancestors Sue had become a Highland piper. Sue could think of no greater honor than to play the pipes and wear the Stewart family clan plaid scarf at a memorial service in Medicine Hat to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death.

Sue contacted the fire chief in Medicine Hat in the hope that a few firefighters might attend the memorial she had planned in her grandfather’s honor. Chief Brian Stauth said he would be honored to accommodate her request on March 19, 2013, exactly 100 years after her grandfather’s death.

That call completed her arrangements for the memorial service, but Sue was worried about playing in the freezing temperatures she would surely encounter in March. She contacted Malcolm Sissons, pipe sergeant of the South Alberta Pipes and Drums in Medicine Hat, who coached her through the challenges of cold-weather piping. Their conversation turned to a heritage meeting at which Malcolm and another local resident, James Marshall, were present. James and his wife Lorine now live in the home that Sue’s grandfather built in 1912. In a gesture of welcome and care, the Marshalls offered a tour of the house. The Marshalls are only the third owners of the house and had moved it to a new location in town. As they arrived at the house Sue was amazed when she saw the address. It was 97 – the regimental number her grandfather had worn as a volunteer firefighter.

 

Heroes remembered

The day of the ceremony, Sue and her family arrived to find 30-plus firefighters, an honor guard and a procession of fire trucks assembled to escort them to the cemetery. Sue’s grandson Thomas was invited to ride in the fire truck that led the procession to the Hillside Cemetery. Thomas then laid the wreath crafted by his grandmother at the marble headstone of his great-great-grandfather. Sue fulfilled her vision to play her pipes in honor of her grandfather and while doing so honored a second fallen firefighter, John A. Brier, who is also buried there. Her family – son Scott, his wife Olga, daughter Cori and grandson Thomas – stood by while her husband John recited a eulogy to celebrate her grandfather’s life.