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.