Kansas Firefighters Somber as Inquiry Intensifies

TOPEKA, Kan.-- In the past 56 years, there have been times when a Topeka firefighter survived a serious injury or potentially fatal situation in the line of duty.

But on Monday evening, Capt. Anthony "Tony" P. Cox, 44, wasn't so fortunate.

Cox, a 21-year veteran of the Topeka Fire Department, collapsed and died after battling a two-alarm blaze in intense heat at the Villa West apartments, 6058 S.W. 27th.

Officials said Cox's death marked the first fatality of a Topeka firefighter since 1951.

Temperatures were near the 100-degree mark at the time of the fire, but authorities Tuesday weren't saying whether heat was a factor in Cox's death.

Fire officials also weren't saying if the fire was the result of arson, only that the blaze remained under investigation.

In spite of Cox's death, Topeka firefighters answered the call of duty Tuesday with the heavy hearts that accompanied losing one of their own.

Cox's fellow firefighters -- members of a tight-knit fraternity of men and women who put their lives on the line on a daily basis -- remembered Cox for his professionalism, commitment to his profession, sense of humor and intelligence.

He also was remembered as a family man who was dedicated to his wife and three children -- two daughters and a son -- with a fourth child on the way.

After an afternoon news conference Tuesday at Topeka Fire Department headquarters, 324 S.E. Jefferson, several colleagues spoke with great respect for Cox's contributions to the community.

"He was always a very active guy -- very dedicated to his kids," said Topeka Fire Department Lt. Randy Phillips. "He was just a fun-loving guy. He was smart and very fun to be around."

Phillips said Cox possessed a rare ability to attract other people to himself and had a "natural leadership" quality that was never lost on his fellow firefighters.

Cox's family "has a lot to be proud of" because of his commitment to serving his community, Phillips said.

Beyond his love for the firefighting profession, Cox also was an outstanding athlete. Several of his fellow firefighters recalled times they spent with Cox on softball fields around town.

Phillips said danger and the threat of death is an inherent part of the firefighting profession and "unfortunately, we're dealing with that today."

"We've had some injuries through the years and some close calls," Phillips said. "This situation we're in can happen to any one of us at any time."

As International Association of Fire Fighters Local 83 secretary, Phillips and other union leaders are working with Cox's family on funeral arrangements.

The union is putting Cox's family's needs first and foremost, Phillips said.

Firefighters will "lean on each other" for support as they go about their duties and also will be able to utilize the services of a Critical Incident Stress Management Team that is available in situations such as this, Phillips said.

For many firefighters, the "best medicine" may be to keep busy and maintain their routine, Phillips said.

In addition to his work with the Topeka Fire Department, Cox also had worked for American Medical Response ambulance service, as well as serving with the Mission Township Fire Department.

Capt. Kent Dederick, president of Local 83, said Cox had a "sense of always being able to challenge you with a question and make you rethink an issue."

Cox also was recalled for his role in helping develop the fire department's hazardous materials unit. Dederick said Cox was writing a grant proposal for the Hazmat team this past week.

Greg Bailey, fire marshal for the Topeka Fire Department, called Cox "a firefighter's firefighter."

Bailey said Cox was always eager to share his love of his profession with others, including members of a citizen's academy who would visit Station No. 8 at 2700 S.W. Fairlawn, out of which Cox worked.

Because Cox would get so excited and was so willing to answer questions from those in the citizen's academy, Bailey quickly learned to schedule Station No. 8 for the last stop, as time there would typically go beyond what was allotted.

Bailey said Cox also cared deeply for those in his immediate family of firefighters.

"Tony and his crew came to our neighborhood block party, and he would always talk about 'his guys, his guys,' referring to his crew of firefighters," Bailey said. "It was his responsibility to take care of his guys, and he welcomed that responsibility."

Bailey echoed the statements from earlier in the day that Cox would be "sorely missed."

An obituary in today's The Topeka Capital-Journal said services will be at 9 a.m. Monday at the Kansas Expocentre. Penwell-Gabel Southwest Chapel, 3700 S.W. Wanamaker, is handling funeral arrangements.

Fire Chief Howard Giles said hundreds -- if not thousands -- of people are expected to pay their respects to Cox at the service.

Republished with permission of the The Topeka Capital-Journal.

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