As two Affton engine companies and an Affton ambulance rushed to the scene of a dramatic accident on Gravois Road just before 9 a.m. Thursday, none of the emergency personnel could have foreseen the shock and sorrow they were about to experience.
In one of the demolished cars, which was lying on its roof, was their boss - Fire Chief Jerry Buehne, an Affton firefighter for nearly 43 years and chief of the fire protection district for the past five.
There was little Affton firefighters and paramedics could do for their popular, effervescent chief, though. A short time later, Buehne, 64, was pronounced dead at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
St. Louis County police said Buehne's westbound car was struck nearly head-on by a speeding eastbound motorist whose vehicle had crossed the center line in the 8600 block of Gravois, at Rosemary Avenue. That motorist was Claudex Simmons, police said, a suspected shoplifter from a nearby Walgreens who might have been trying to outrun police at the time of the accident.
Police said they were not actively chasing Simmons at the time of the crash.
Simmons, 44, was ejected from his car and was in critical condition at a hospital Thursday, according to County Police spokesman Rick Eckhard. No charges had been filed Thursday against Simmons.
Family members said Simmons excelled in school and was active in his church but at some point developed a drug habit. He stole to support his habit in the past, said his mother, Magdelene Ivory. He was scheduled to be arraigned on a theft charge today in St. Charles County, according to court records.
"That cocaine just took and destroyed everything he had going for himself," Ivory said.
Ivory said she was saddened by Buehne's death and her son should be punished for his crimes if he survives his injuries.
The crash occurred on the first day of Buehne's new route to work. He spent his first night Wednesday in a new house he and his wife, Donna, had moved into on Eichelberger Street in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood.
Eckhard said the incident began about 8:45 a.m., when police were notified that a man had stolen something from the Sappington Walgreens at 11580 Gravois.
As the call was going out, a county police officer saw the suspect's car, a purple PT Cruiser, speeding east on Gravois. The police car went after the vehicle, but stayed about three-quarters of a mile behind it, Eckhard said.
Gravois was closed to traffic in both directions for about three hours after the accident.
Affton fire personnel draped the fire district's new station on Gravois in black bunting and lowered its flags to half-staff Thursday. Visitors came to the station in tears to share condolences with firefighters. The district was deluged with phone calls from other area districts and departments offering help.
"It just hit us like a freight train," Affton Capt. William Albright said. "We're all devastated right now."
Making the loss especially painful was that Affton fire district personnel were the first to respond to the scene.
"It's terrible. That's the worst-case scenario . . . when it's one of your own," said Fenton Fire Protection District Chief Larry Boyle, who heard the call go out on the radio but didn't realize Buehne was a victim until a short time later. "My heart really goes out to those folks."
News of what happened spread quickly through area fire agencies. Within a couple of hours of the wreck, area fire chiefs and others had banded together to make funeral and other arrangements so Buehne's family and Affton personnel wouldn't have to.
Area fire chiefs and others spoke fondly of Buehne, who many described as an easy-going, fun-loving, yet steady man with a good sense of humor and a great love of the fire service and his family.
"He was a firefighter's firefighter - a natural," Albright said. "He was a prince."
Creve Coeur Fire Protection District Chief Bill Brandes said he and Buehne had been friends for two decades.
"He was a really fun-loving guy who would give his life for anybody else," Brandes said. "He proved that."
Buehne started in the fire service as a private, worked his way up to captain and was Affton's assistant chief for about 20 years before taking over as chief, Albright said.
His son, Tim Buehne, followed his father's career path. Tim Buehne is a captain with the Fenton fire district. Jerry and Donna Buehne also have a daughter, Cindy Siegel, of San Diego, and four grandchildren.
Boyle, the Fenton chief, referred to Buehne as "the dean" of area chiefs who've been in their positions a fairly short time. "He was always the calming voice," Boyle said. "He was just a remarkable influence."
Al Kirchhofer, a retired Affton firefighter, said of the chief: "Firefighting was his life. He wouldn't even tell you the good things he did. He never bragged about himself. All he cared about was the fire department."
Kirchhofer became an Affton firefighter in 1961, a year before Buehne joined the department. "It's just a shock to us that he won't be there any more," Kirchhofer said. "He'd always be one of the first guys in to help whenever he was needed."
Full firefighters honor funeral services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday, March 14 at the Faith Lutheran Church, 6101 Telegraph Rd., Oakville. The funeral procession will pass Affton Fire Station #1 and proceed to Resurrection Cemetery, 6901 McKenzie, Affton.
Departments wishing to provide apparatus for the firefighters procession should contact the Staging Detail Officer Rick Wilken 314-540-1900 or Larry Boyle 314-724-3046