Fallen Tacoma Firefighter Lived Life Filled with Exploration

May 22--Albert Nejmeh's life was a series of grand adventures as he zigzagged around the world and deep into the hearts of all who met him.

The 59-year-old Tacoma firefighter was something of a legend to those who knew him, even before he died May 14 of a heart attack while rendering medical aid on-duty.

Nejmeh captained schooners, climbed mountains in Nepal, bicycled across Cuba, played at least five instruments, sang in Carnegie Hall with Pete Seeger, wrote an unpublished book, rafted the Grand Canyon, sailed 4,000 miles to the Soviet Union on a friendship tour with fellow environmentalists, built his own self-sustaining home, and stamped out an enormous peace sign in the snow near Lake Placid.

He joined the Tacoma Fire Department 12 years ago, becoming one of the oldest hires in department history.

"There's nobody like him," said Michele Wyzga, his partner and friend for more than 25 years.

Nejmeh's friends describe him as steady, grounded, loving and adventurous. They compare him to Buddha, Bruce Willis and Bruce Springstein, then shake their heads because no combination of people quite describes the character Nejmeh was.

He grew up in Hawthorne, N.J., and moved to the state of Washington to assume command of the Adventuress, a popular schooner offering sailing experiences and environmental education. Nejmeh was just as likely to be urging people to sing along as he strummed the guitar as to be steering the ship.

He was an old hand on the water, having captained the Clearwater on the Hudson River from 1987-89. The environmental flagship was built in 1966 to give the public a first-hand look at the pollution on the river.

In 1989, Nejmeh helped organize the Soviet-American Sail, which grouped 20 environmentalists from both nations for a research-based voyage that sounded a message that the environment was more important than an arms buildup.

"He was always doing something," said friend Teresa Soucie. "He embraced life. There was nothing that was going to stop him."

Nejmeh meticulously planned kayaking trips in the Arctic, sight-seeing tours of Greece and trekking in Nepal, where he insisted on taking nontouristy trails that led him to an indigenous tribe. He couldn't verbally communicate with them but ended up staying for weeks, observing their culture and building rock fences for them.

He brought together 16 people last fall for a 280-mile float down the Grand Canyon to celebrate friend Sara Katz's birthday. He packed balloons and party hats and threw a fiesta on the sandbar one evening, singing songs and dancing late into the night.

His music was the center of his life, and he rarely left home without his guitar. Friends recall jam sessions that lasted 10 hours or extended road trips filled with Nejmeh singing and strumming, but never to the same song twice.

He wasn't married and had no children, but he loved to host friends at his home, which he spent 10 years building with wood on his property.

Nejmeh inscribed the musical notes to "This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land" and "Ode to Joy" on the stair railings. He used a massive tree trunk as a table and chair. He slept in a one-room loft and dedicated the rest of the expansive house to a rock climbing wall, basketball court and weight room.

"He was strong as an ox but had a heart of gold and marshmallow," said friend Maribeth Crandell.

After Nejmeh's death, his loved ones found comfort in telling tales about him. How easily he inspired people to step outside their comfort zone. The kind words that spilled from his lips. His devotion to the job, passion for the environment and love of learning. The stories always come back to Nejmeh's crazy adventures, though.

One time he invited hundreds of folks to bring gravel and fill out a half-mile-wide peace sign he stamped into the ground near Lake Placid, N.Y., hoping it would be spotted by a space satellite.

Then there was the time he ignored a strict law barring civilians from entering Cuba, took a month off from work and loaded his bicycle, guitar and baseballs to cycle across the country, eager to play catch with local kids and meet fellow firefighters.

Friends said he was nervous coming back through customs but so thoroughly charmed the customs agent that the man forgot to check Nejmeh's passport.

"Everybody ended up loving him; he was just that type of guy," said Rick Quiambao, his best friend from New Jersey.

That charisma mixed with determination earned him a place on the Tacoma Fire Department when he was 47.

When Nejmeh captained the Adventuress, the ship would dock in Tacoma and he and his crew would use the firefighters' shower. They encouraged him to apply, which he did.

Nejmeh did not bother shaving or cutting his hair for the interview, and comrades said he made other candidates feel more confident about their own chances after seeing Nejmeh's Grizzly Adams appearance.

Dan Stevens went through the fire academy with Nejmeh.

"We thought Al wouldn't make it because he was old," Stevens said. "But he led us. He was the head of that class. He saved all of our bacon in so many ways."

An expert with knots, Nejmeh eventually became an instructor for the department's technical rescue team.

He worked hard and kept busy, quickly earning the respect of his now-retired battalion chief, Tom Haneline.

"Let him go and don't get in his way and it'll get done," Haneline said. "He wanted to learn the craft as closely as he could."

Nejmeh was that way about most things.

No matter what he did, he went all in and took every opportunity for new experiences. He volunteered for a time at a center for developmentally delayed children. He opted to hitchhike across the country for a year just to meet new people and see new places. He agreed to guide a friend to the summit of Mount Rainier in exchange for surfing lessons.

"It's the life most people aspire to," said friend Jim Cade. "But Al did it. He lived it."

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653


Copyright 2013 - The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)