Overdue Honor for NY Firefighter after 71 Years

Cronomer Valley firefighter Walter Ferguson is being honored for his 1946 line-of-duty death.

Firehouse.com News
Walter E. Ferguson, a Navy veteran who served with the Cronomer Valley Fire Department in Newburgh, NY, and died in the line of duty on Dec. 20, 1946.
Walter E. Ferguson, a Navy veteran who served with the Cronomer Valley Fire Department in Newburgh, NY, and died in the line of duty on Dec. 20, 1946.
Rob Dorrmann

We're at that time of year when cities and towns across the country take some time to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the performance of their duties.

Memorials to the fallen are just one of the ways we remember those who gave everything to protect life and property, and one firefighter from a small community about an hour north of New York City has waited long enough to receive his due.

The all-volunteer Cronomer Valley Fire Department is located in Newburgh, a town with a population of about 28,000 people nestled along the Hudson River in Orange County. Until last year, none of the department's 80 members were aware they had a line-of-duty death in their history.

During a meeting last year to discuss insurance in the event of an on-duty death, an older member casually mentioned that the department had lost someone in 1946, but it was the first time anyone else had heard about it.

"Everybody at the table just looked at each other and we were like, 'What are you talking about?' Nobody had ever discussed this," Cronomer Valley Fire Chief Rob Dorrmann said in a recent interview with Firehouse.com.

Afterward, Dorrmann says the department's oldest member -- 95-year-old Don Stillwaggon -- was interviewed and vividly recalled the night in question: Dec. 20, 1946.

It was on that night when firefighter Walter Ferguson, a Navy veteran who worked as an engineer at Stewart Airfield, came upon a fire at his own home while he was out plowing snow. Ferguson advised someone to call the fire department and then rushed inside to protect his property, but sadly he was overcome by the smoke and flames and was killed.

The fatality was later reported on the front page of the local newspaper, but there was scant mention of Ferguson's fire service and the story was also buried beneath a banner headline from a major incident. The Nankai earthquake in Japan, which killed nearly 1,500 people, happened the same day Ferguson died and dominated the front page.

It was also a far different time back then than the present day's handling and recognition when it comes to line-of-duty deaths.

"We talked to our older member and they just didn't do this back then. They didn't have large funerals," Dorrmann said. "There were no large processions."

Ferguson's tragic death came a little over a year after his marriage to his wife, Catherine, and he also left behind three brothers and three sisters, according to Dorrmann.

Dorrmann and his membership set about the task of gathering news clippings and any other information on the incident so they could present it to the state and get Ferguson's death classified as line of duty. They missed the 2016 cutoff to have him honored last fall, but after submitting all the materials earlier this year, firefighter Walter E. Ferguson's name is set to be added to the New York State Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Albany on Tuesday.

And his brother George, who helped Dorrmann and his firefighters piece together what happened nearly 71 years ago, will be in attendance along with members of the Cronomer Valley Fire Department.

"That's what we do," said Chief Dorrmann, who also has plans for a memorial to Ferguson at his fire station. "We honor these guys, and he deserves as much credit as the guy that this might unfortunately happen to tomorrow."


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