Not since Sept. 11, 2001, has southwest Missouri felt such an outpouring of pride and gratitude for the area's firefighters. With the recent loss of Carthage Firefighter Steve Fierro, killed in the line of duty just days ago, area residents are reminded of their civil servants.
"It's a shame we don't fully appreciate these guys (firefighters) until something like this happens," said Diana Brockman, rural Neosho resident. "I don't think we, as a community, realize the perils of the job they do."
The Brockmans have an earned appreciation for firefighters, having watched men from Neosho, Seneca and Redings Mill Fire Departments fight to save their home from a blaze four years ago.
"I've seen these men go into our burning home," she said. "I realize that the most valued possessions I have -- a few photos salvaged from the blackened remains of our home -- are because these firefighters fought for them. These men are a special breed."
But you can't tell them that.
"We don't really look at ourselves as a special breed," said 26-year veteran Neosho firefighter John Edsell, 44. "Firefighters are dedicated, but we know this is more than just a job. We know when we kiss our family good-bye every morning, have that cup of coffee at the station and then jump in the truck to go on that call, anything could happen.
"Sure, there are some scary situations that you get into as a firefighter that you do ask yourself, 'What am I doing here,'" admitted Edsell. "And especially when something like this happens (Steve Fierro's death). You have a lot of question. Like how and why, and what can I do to keep this from happening in the future? My biggest fear, as a lieutenant, is having to go knock on somebody's door and tell them someone's not coming home."
So why do they do it?
For 28-year-old Tim Duncan, who was a volunteer with the NFD for a year before taking full-time employment with the department a little over a year ago, it's about being a part of a community and making a difference.
"It's the idea of being able to give back to the community," said Duncan. "We're actually able to help individuals who don't have the training that we do; whether it's being able to save people's belongings, or save people's lives; it's just a good feeling."
For families like the Brockmans, they know the deep sense of community these firefighters feel; they know it first hand. Although firefighters couldn't save their home four years ago, they did save Christmas.
"After they extinguished our house fire," recalled Diana, "they came to us and apologized for not being able to do more. I could not have imagined any possible way that they could have done more than they did that day, but they did do more.
"Five days later, on my son's fourth birthday, Santa arrived a few days early, by way of a fire truck," she continued. "He brought a truckload of gifts, clothing and food for our family. These local fire departments, along with a number of volunteers, gathered donations, shopped and wrapped gifts so that my family would have a nice Christmas."
Civil servants they may be, but Duncan insists, "It's not about being a hero. It's just about being able to help."
Help save lives maybe, but why must they go into burning buildings for no other reason than to save the building and its contents, like the Brockmans' home; or like Steve Fierro and countless other firefighters who entered Bronc Busters Restaurant north of Diamond on Wednesday? Fierro lost his life, not trying to save another human life, rather to save as much of a building as he possibly could. One has to wonder if there are times the ends don't justify the means; times the prices paid far exceed what might have been saved.
"There are times we realize it's a hopeless cause, but we try to prevent that hopelessness as much as possible," said Edsell. "Part of this job is not only saving lives, but also saving people's property. We realize that people have worked hard for what they've got. It doesn't matter if they're rich or poor, if they live in a $300,000 home, or a young couple's humble home, they've worked hard for it. People's memories are in their homes. Everything they own; everything they cherish.
"Like with Bronc Busters this week, we consider that somebody's livelihood," continued Edsell. "If that building goes up in flames, there will be people out of work; people who can't support their families. That's our job. That's what the taxpayers pay us to do."
If having a sense of community is what motivates firefighters to do what they do, it is perhaps the sense of brotherhood that keeps them doing it.
"I guess Sept. 11 had a little bit to do with why I became a firefighter," said Duncan, "to be a part of the brotherhood. That's what it really is with firefighters. It's a brotherhood. It's like a second family. I would do anything for these guys, and they would for me."
It is perhaps that brotherhood that makes the death of Steve Fierro so difficult for so many. Fierro got his start as a firefighter in Neosho more than a dozen years ago, serving a couple of years with the department before going to Carthage. Many within the NFD were close to him; many more worked with him, met him, knew of him and it seems everyone respected him tremendously.
"I did work with Steve," said Edsell. "He was one of those guys that if you met him once, you would consider him a friend, and he would consider you the same. Everybody's going through something different right now with the loss of Steve. Even if people didn't know him, they feel the loss. We've lost a brother and lost a friend. It hurts."
For Duncan, who said he's never had the good fortune of knowing Steve, for his brothers who did, those with a great sense of loss, he feels their pain.
"You want to be there for them," he said. "You want to help them through it. And it does make you think back to the situations you've been in, or look forward on those you may be in. We do this job, every third day, in 24-hour shifts, and anything can happen. We're not invincible.
"It makes me think of being safer, but it doesn't make me want to stop," admitted Duncan, despite the obvious dangers.
Even for Edsell, who admits he's just six years away from retirement, and has come to think of a day without an emergency call as a good day, the job itself still calls his name.
"If I can throw on a smoke pack, go into a fiery building, and kick it in the seat of the pants, I can walk out and feel a sense of accomplishments," Edsell said. "Firefighting is really a calling."
If firefighting is, in fact, a calling, it is one that never ends. As a number of area fire departments fought the blaze at Bronc Busters Wednesday, at the same time, just across town, the Seneca Fire Department was fighting one of dozens of area grass fires this past week. This fire however, threatened the Brockmans' newly rebuilt house, burning more than half of their 17 acres, and many more of their neighbor's. This time, firefighters were able to save the homes.
"Our local firefighters put themselves in harm's way often to protect us and our properties," said Diana Brockman. "I personally feel a deep sense of gratitude toward them. My heart goes out to the family of Steve Fierro. Although I didn't know him, I know the kind of man he must have been, and I appreciate his service to our communities as one of our local heroes, the firefighters."
Memorial services for Steve Fierro are being held in the morning, Monday, Feb. 23, at 10 a.m., at the Ozark Christian College (OCC) multipurpose building, at 1111 N. Main St., in Joplin. Burial will be at the Park Cemetery in Carthage.
Memorial contributions can be made to the Steve Fierro Memorial Children's Fund, c/o The Bank of Joplin, 3434 East 7th Street, Joplin, 64801.