Two Fallen Illinois Firefighters Honored 20 Years Later

ALTON, Ill. -- Tuesday's gray, drizzly morning enhanced the somber tone at the Alton Fire Department's memorial service for its fallen firefighters, particularly two men who died 20 years ago Wednesday.

"I have to believe that to the firefighters on duty, it seemed the start of a normal shift," Fire Chief Bernie Sebold said about the entire shift. "Twenty years ago, not one of our firefighters imagined an alarm would sound that would forever change their lives. Some of them took the test needing a job; others followed a childhood dream. They all grew to love the job. The men and women they work with are like a family."

Because of that wet weather, the 20-minute service was moved from outside by the firefighter memorial to inside the truck bays at the Don Twichell Memorial Fire Station No. 1, 333 E. 20th St.

Sebold said the memorial service was held 20 years to the date that Capt. Gary Porter, 38, and probationary firefighter Tim Lewis, 29, started their final, fatal shift -- the day before their deaths.

The men died Oct. 24, 1992, when a burning wall in a duplex at 1414 Highland Ave., collapsed on the firefighters during an arson fire. The entire building eventually crumbled. There had been at least two other alarms at the address before the fatal fire.

Two men later were convicted of federal arson charges and went to prison.

The service honored all firefighters' dedication to service, the community and each other, always prepared for whatever the next alarm brings and not knowing whether it is their last call.

It also paid tribute to two firefighters who died in the line of duty in the 1940s. Firefighter Michael P. Bensman, 48, was Alton's first firefighter to die in the line of duty Jan. 11, 1946; and probationary pipeman Warren Baker, 24, who died of head injuries he suffered while sliding down a fire station pole when responding to an alarm Aug. 25, 1948.

The city went 44 years before another firefighter died on duty.

Attendees at the service nearly filled the space, including family members of Porter and Lewis, Mayor Tom Hoechst, Police Chief David Hayes, City Clerk Mary Boulds, City Treasurer Cindy Roth, City Comptroller Stephanie Elliott, aldermen, retired Alton firefighters -- including five retired chiefs -- Alton police officers, and firefighters from Godfrey and Brighton.

Survivors of Porter and Lewis sat in the front rows of chairs, some dabbing tears throughout the service and afterward. Still, they said they were grateful Alton was remembering the men's ultimate sacrifices.

"We're honored they did this for us; our father is gone, or he would have been in the front row," said a tearful but appreciative Scott Lewis, 56, of Granite City, one of Tim Lewis' elder brothers. "We're just so thankful they haven't forgotten."

"It's helpful," said another brother, Ray Lewis, 54, of Godfrey.

Ray Lewis' daughter, April Kiel, 32, of Godfrey, said she was 12 when her uncle died, but she remembers him and liked the religious tone of the ceremony.

"His touching on the Lord in his speech reminded us of him and how we will all be together someday," she said about firefighter Jon Davis' benediction.

Davis is pastor of Restoration Church, which meets at Jacoby Arts Center in Alton.

"Each time fire service puts on a uniform, it is an act of love for the community," Davis said. "When we respond to an alarm, we live the Golden Rule. We stand ready to respond. It is love in motion that comes at a great cost. We give our assurance to be there when called upon to help.

"Sometimes, it takes a tragic event for people like us to feel love" from the community, he said.

Firefighter John Bolling, a former associate pastor, opened the service with a prayer for the firefighters who "gave the ultimate sacrifice, their lives, to protect lives and, secondly, property.

"We know our brothers are in a better place, having answered their final alarm," Bolling said. "Without a shade of doubt, we know we can count on each other."

Porter's mother and sister came from Cape Girardeau, Mo., to join family at the ceremony.

"It is important the firefighters are remembered; I am proud of him," said his mother, Ethelyn Gorham, 78.

Porter's sister, Paula Porter-Huggins, 49, agreed.

"It's important to us to know Gary won't be forgotten and his sacrifice still is important to the citizens of Alton," she said. "It also brings back the loss, but I'm glad we came."

Her brother was a 14-year veteran of the department.

Firefighters wore dress uniforms in honor of the solemn occasion, with the APD honor guard presenting colors, and drummer-firefighter Donald Holliday and bagpiper Capt. Dan Whiteside playing "Amazing Grace."

As tradition, Capt. Rick Orban rang a silver bell nine times at the end of the ceremony, as is done at firefighter funerals.

"It is a symbol of hope and respect -- three rings, three times," Deputy Fire Chief Mark Harris said. "It is the end of our comrades' duties, their last alarm, that they have gone 'home.'"

Harris said fire service is increasingly dangerous.

"We save lives and property, sometimes at a terrible cost," he said.

Arsonist Gregory L. Martin Sr., the landlord who planned the fire, was sentenced to 50 years in federal prison in 1994, but won an appeal and got the sentence reduced to 25 years. He remains in the Greenville Federal Correctional Institution with a predicted release in August 2014.

Martin's tenant at the time, Delanney O'Neal Gordon Sr., admitted setting the fire for Martin in exchange for a rent reduction. He pleaded guilty, testified against Martin -- saying he didn't intend for anyone to die in the fire, and that his conscience bothered him -- and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was released in 2008.

An insurance company claims adjuster testified in court that the company had issued a $33,000 claim on the building to Martin after the fire.

Copyright 2012 - The Telegraph, Alton, Ill.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service