SUMMERSVILLE -- Standing above Lt. Johnnie Hammons' casket, Steve Pilato told the hundreds gathered to mourn the fallen firefighter a story showing Hammons was a gentleman.
Pilato, a regional representative for Gov. Joe Manchin, said he met a Craigsville man who told him about a day he was sick and working in a ditch. Hammons, an 11-year veteran of the Craigsville-Beaver-Cottle Volunteer Fire Department, saw the man struggling.
"Johnnie Hammons got down in that ditch and helped this man finish the work," Pilato said. "That's Johnnie Hammons serving others. That's what many of you do in the service of others. God bless you."
Friends, family, caring citizens and scores of emergency responders from both inside and outside West Virginia gathered twice at the Summersville National Guard complex Tuesday to pay their final respects to Hammons, 49, and fellow CBC volunteer firefighter Timothy "Little Tim" Nicholas, 26, who died last Thursday while battling a mobile home blaze in Cottle.
Emergency responders would first mourn Hammons, a retired sawmill worker who Pilato said often volunteered his time at various businesses and organizations.
"It's been a rough couple of days," CBC Fire Chief Tim Blake said. "We want to thank everyone for coming and who have helped us during our time of need. You have showed the true meaning of brotherhood.
"Johnnie was our brother. But we are all still a family. Our doors are still open. Johnnie Hammons is gone, but not forgotten. His dedication to the fire department will be sadly missed."
Summersville Mayor Robert Shafer read a message from Sen. Jay Rockefeller.
"(Hammons) was a gentleman who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his fellow citizens," Shafer read from Rockefeller's message. "Those like him are a rare breed -- those who serve others in need. They work to save lives in danger, the lives of their neighbors -- perhaps, a person unknown to them. That is the true mark of love and courage. We will continue to remember him with pride."
Retired Charleston Fire Capt. Matt Jackson said four "families" were represented Tuesday -- emergency medical services, law enforcement, the military and firefighting. He asked the emergency responders to stand while he read "The Firefighter's Prayer."
"But we are all brothers and sisters," he said. "We are here to honor a firefighter, a great firefighter. My brother -- Brother Hammons."
The Rev. Tim Meadows recalled the prophet Elijah's conversation with his eventual successor, Elisha, before Elijah was taken to Heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah asked Elisha, "What can I do for you before I am taken from you?" Elisha asked to inherit a "double portion" of Elijah's spirit.
For Elisha, the day his mentor departed was a dark one, Meadows said. Losing a friend is never easy, and time waits for no one. The firefighters who carry onward should not beat themselves up with guilt.
"You may wonder why it was Johnnie or Tim and not you," he said. "And don't be ashamed of your tears. These are just a safety valve that keep us from just exploding. God doesn't expect us to be super humans. The Lord came to us by the way of a lowly state so He would know how we feel and how we hurt. I want you to know that I care and God cares."
Jerry Beckett, commander of the Huntington Fire Department's honor guard, presided over the traditional "bell service," signifying a firefighter's "last alarm." A bell was tapped repeatedly, then Hammons' name was called -- and the bell was rung one last time.
"John 15:13 says, 'Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,'" Beckett said. "That is exactly what happened Thursday night."
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Just hours later, mourners would gather again for Nicholas, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and member of the West Virginia Army National Guard's Special Forces (Haz-Mat) in Huntington who provided security at President Obama's inauguration. Besides his work as a volunteer firefighter, Nicholas was an emergency vehicle operator for Redi-Care Ambulance.
Pilato acknowledged the presence of Capt. George Garner of the Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department, which lost nine firefighters in a 2007 furniture store blaze, and a New York City fire lieutenant. First responders of all types, he said, are ready and willing to serve their fellow citizens when called, no matter the situation.
Mike Jarrett, chaplain for various agencies, including the state fire marshal's office, noted the numerous public safety agencies for which Nicholas worked included Redi-Care and Jan-Care ambulance services.
"It seems like 'care' was in Timmy's vocabulary, wasn't it?" Jarrett said.
"Little Tim has grown to be a big, big man in my eyes," Meadows said. "I've thought about the jobs he did -- ambulance driver, military -- so much in a short span. He helped so many people so many times when people were hurting.
"Tim was a friend to everyone and brought freedom into people's lives. He also bound up the broken. If he were in his ambulance and saw someone hurt, I guarantee you, he would get out."
Beckett recalled all that Nicholas did in his young life.
"You hear the youth today are doing no good," Beckett said. "Well, this young man served his country, community and family. I don't know what else you could do. He was definitely the Good Samaritan. He didn't sit on the sidelines. He knew the military was dangerous. He knew firefighting was dangerous.
"Continue onward. Press forward. Do not let anything stand in the way of the great job you do."
Republished with permission from The Register-Herald