***I talked to Phil breifly a few times. He was truely a nice guy.****

Wenham remembers fallen firefighter

By Thomas Lake

Staff writer

WENHAM - Phil Melanson's red helmet sat empty in the sun yesterday as friends, family and fellow firefighters pressed close to the casket for one last look.

They came from as far as Denver to say goodbye to a man who kept his friends for life, kept the candy machine well-stocked and smiled as the terminal disease closed in.

Melanson, a 47-year-old Beverly resident, died Thursday after battling the bloodborne liver disease hepatitis C for 18 years. His wife, Denise, and his doctor, Curtis Ersing of Ipswich, said he got the disease on the job from exposure to infected blood at an accident scene. Fellow members of the Wenham Fire Department, including Chief Cal Perkins, refused to confirm or deny that account.

Melanson joined the department as a call firefighter in 1983 and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant. Ersing said the fire department put him in a role - fire prevention officer - that did not require intense physical exertion. As his liver failed, his blood lost its clotting ability, so a simple slip-and-fall during a fire could have caused a life-threatening hemorrhage.

Nevertheless, he went to calls when he could, and colleagues loved him.

"He could be a little cantankerous," said Lt. Eric Fowler, "but he was a friend through and through."

About 15 years ago, a Denver firefighter named Joseph Gonzales came to Wenham so his daughter Joey could visit Gordon College. Gonzales went to the Wenham fire station to ask about fire safety in the dormitories, and there he met Melanson. The two became friends. Melanson periodically checked on Joey during her years at Gordon, and he traveled to Denver for her wedding.

Gonzales was one of hundreds who attended Melanson's funeral yesterday.

"He was one of the finest people you could ever hope to meet," he said.

Melanson remained a Wenham firefighter until last September, when the disease worsened and he had to retire. He left behind his wife and a young son, Brian.

The Rev. Louis Bourgeois prayed for Melanson yesterday as an organ played softly at St. Paul's Church in Hamilton.

"Remember Philip," he said. "Bring him home with you, to be with you forever."