On Tuesday, May 3, 2005, James M. Ratcliffe, a past chief and 40-year veteran of the Metuchen (NJ) Fire Department, died of complications of a stroke he suffered on April 11, 2005, while driving a fire engine. Below are a story about his death that was published in the Star Ledger and Trenton Times newspapers and his full obituary.


James Ratcliffe, firefighter, dies

Friday, May 06, 2005


METUCHEN - When he wasn't working, James Michael "Mike" Ratcliffe spent much of his time at the Metuchen firehouse, checking equipment and giving younger firefighters the benefit of the experience he gained during his 40 years in the department.

"Everything in his life revolved around the fire department," said Ratcliffe's son, Michael Ratcliffe. "Some of my earliest memories are being at the Metuchen firehouse hanging out with the children of other firefighters while my father was in a meeting or working on equipment."

On April 11, Ratcliffe, a former chief, was at the wheel of Engine 4, driving in a funeral procession honoring another former chief when he suffered a stroke.

Ratcliffe, 62, died Tuesday as a result of the stroke.

"He was one of the most active members of the department," Fire Chief Robert Donnan said.

Ratcliffe joined the department in 1965 and rose though the ranks before becoming chief in 1991, a position he held for three years.

Several years ago, Ratcliffe became safety officer, a coveted department position usually filled by a former chief, who used his experience to oversee conditions in and around a fire while the chief and firefighters attacked the blaze.

"He was a great person to lean on at an incident. He would check the need for traffic control or see if a chimney was in danger of falling," Donnan said.

His most enjoyable times, his son said, were at the firehouse, washing equipment, waiting out violent thunderstorms or sharing stories with other department members.

"He was most at home in the firehouse. His closest friends were firefighters," said Michael Ratcliffe, who is a volunteer fire captain with the Lawrence Road Fire Co. in Lawrence and a staff writer for The Times of Trenton.

On April 11, Ratcliffe was one of six pallbearers for his long-time friend and former chief Harold Breen. Ratcliffe was driving Engine 4 - with his friend Lou Winn, a retired firefighter in the passenger's seat - at the head of a procession on Linden Avenue. They were about to turn to pass in front of the firehouse.

Winn recognized Ratcliffe was in distress and having difficulty driving. At the intersection, Ratcliffe was unable to drive. Winn reached over and quickly applied the hand-operated emergency brake to stop the truck, then jumped out the door and ran to the driver's side just as his friend opened his door and was falling from his seat, Donnan said.

As the procession stopped, other firefighters and emergency-medical technicians ran to assist the former chief, who was rushed to JFK Medical Center in Edison.

Ratcliffe was admitted to the hospital and later transferred to the hospital's Haven Hospice.

"He was at a department function when this happened. He died in the line of duty," Donnan said.

Ratcliffe served on fire department committees and for 20 years was secretary of the Metuchen Firemen's Relief Association that assists members in financial distress.

Ratcliffe had attended many classes at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md. He was a life member of the Washington Hose Engine Co. No. 1 in Metuchen and the New Jersey State Firemen's Association.

His other passion, his son said, was the New York Giants football team.

"He would follow them off-season and regular season. One of the biggest days of the year for him was the NFL draft," Michael Ratcliffe said.

Born in Elba, Ala., Ratcliffe moved with his mother and career military officer father several times. He spent two years in Hawaii before moving to Metuchen.

Ratcliffe worked as production supervisor for Bienfang Paper Co. in Edison from 1960 to 1979 and as production and warehouse supervisor for Castrol North America in Edison from 1980 to 1998. He had been semiretired, working most recently as a computer technician for Network Relocation Service in Riverside.

He enjoyed playing with his two cats, Max and Midnight, listening to old-time radio dramas and reading adventure novels and military history. He also enjoyed gardening and fishing with his friends.

A procession of fire apparatus and Irish bagpipers will lead the funeral services, scheduled for 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at Costello-Runyon Funeral Home, followed by liturgy at 10:15 a.m. at St. Francis Cathedral. Visitation will be from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Monday at the funeral home.


METUCHEN – James Michael “Mike” Ratcliffe, 62, died on Tuesday, May 3, 2005, of complications from a stroke that he suffered in the line of duty on April 11, 2005, while serving as a firefighter with Washington Hose Engine Company No. 1 of the Metuchen Fire Department.

He passed away peacefully, with his loving family at his side, at Haven Hospice in the Mary Anne Hale Pavilion at JFK Medical Center in Edison.

He began his career as a volunteer firefighter with the Metuchen Fire Department in 1965 and faithfully served as an active and respected member for the last 40 years. He worked his way through the ranks of the department and held several positions as a fireline officer and incident commander, serving as lieutenant, captain and then assistant chief.

In 1991, 1992 and 1993, he served as chief of the Metuchen Fire Department. During his three-year tenure as fire chief, he directed firefighting operations at some of the largest fires to strike the borough in recent memory, including the blazes in 1991 at the Irma’s Bag card and gift store on Pearl Street and the Boro Motors car dealership on Route 27.

Not long after his term as chief ended, he was appointed to be the fire department’s safety officer, which required him to oversee fire and rescue operations to watch for hazards that could endanger his fellow firefighters. He served as safety officer up to the time of his death.

In addition to his service as a fireline officer, he also held many important administrative positions within the fire department. For many years, he served as president of Engine Company No. 1. He was the current vice president of the fire company. He also served on many fire company social committees over the years and was a member of the company’s kitchen crew. For close to 20 years, he served as secretary of the Metuchen Firemen’s Relief Association.

Over the years, he attended many classes at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He was a life member of Washington Hose Engine Company No. 1, a life member of the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association, and a member of the New Jersey State Exempt Firemen’s Association.

He was born in Elba, Alabama, on August 1, 1942. As the son of a career Army officer whose posting changed several times, he spent his early childhood growing up on different military bases across the United States. After living in Hawaii for two years, the family moved to Metuchen around 1949. He had lived in the borough ever since.

He worked as a production supervisor for Bienfang Paper Co. in Edison from 1960 until 1979, and as a production and warehouse supervisor for Castrol North America in Edison from 1980 until 1998. Semi-retired, he most recently worked as a computer technician for Network Relocation Services of Riverside.

He was a passionate New York Giants football fan, following the team through the regular season and throughout the off-season. In his spare time, he enjoyed playing with his two pet cats, Max and Midnight, listening to old-time radio dramas, and reading adventure novels and military histories by authors like Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins, Leslie Charteris, Clive Cussler and W.E.B. Griffin. He enjoyed gardening, particularly caring for his tomato plants, and going fishing with his friends.

But his most enjoyed spending time at the borough firehouse with his extended family –the members of the Metuchen Fire Department who he considered to be his brothers and sisters. No matter if it was washing and waxing the fire apparatus, waiting in case an alarm was to sound during a fierce thunderstorm or just sitting around sharing stories of old fires fought, he was most at home in the firehouse. His closest friends were fellow firefighters and members of the Metuchen Police Department.

At the time of his injury, he was driving a fire engine at the head of a funeral procession for his best friend, Harold “Skip” Breen Jr., who himself had been a 45-plus-year veteran and past chief of the Metuchen Fire Department.

Predeceased by his father, Fred Ratcliffe, and mother, Helen Ratcliffe (nee Heaney), he is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, Michael J. and Ann Ratcliffe of Lawrence Township; his daughter and son-in-law, Cathleen M. and Gregory Compa of Aberdeen; his grandson, Matthew Reagan Compa; his sister and brother-in-law, Barbara Ann and Alvie Bullock of Binghamton, N.Y.; his brother and sister-in-law, John and Jane Ratcliffe of John’s Island, S.C.; several nieces and nephews; and a host of friends in the fire department, police department, and elsewhere.

He will receive the full honors afforded to a firefighter who has died in the line-of-duty. A procession of fire apparatus will lead the funeral, along with Irish bagpipers. Funeral services will take place Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. at Costello-Runyon Funeral Home, 568 Middlesex Ave. (Rt. 27), Metuchen, followed by a 10:15 a.m. funeral liturgy at St. Francis Cathedral, Metuchen. Visitation will be 2 p.m.-4 p.m. and 7 p.m.-9 p.m. Monday at the funeral home.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Haven Hospice, c/o JFK Medical Center, 80 James St., Edison, N.J. 08818, or to the Metuchen Fire Department, 500 Main St., Metuchen, N.J. 08840.