Fallen Mich. Firefighter Remembered For Helping Spirit

May 9, 2013
Brian Woehike, 29, was just 10 months into his dream job as a Wayne-Westland firefighter when he was killed in a strip mall fire when the roof collapsed.

May 09--A small bouquet of dandelions lay on the front porch of the two-story home.

It was placed there by a 5-year-old girl who lives across the street, a small tribute to the man who lived there and died this morning serving his community.

Brian Woehlke, 29, was just 10 months into his dream job as a Wayne-Westland firefighter when he was killed after a roof collapsed on him during a fire at a strip mall. He was the first firefighter killed in the line of duty in the Westland department's 47-year history.

Family members, firefighters and neighbors mourned the death of the married father described as outgoing and happy, a man who never shied away from helping someone in need.

"He was just a great guy, in all ways," said neighbor Maureen Ewasek, 80.

It's not yet known what caused the blaze that destroyed the Electric Stick, a billiards hall in business for 20 years, and Marvaso's Italian Grille, which has been open for 10 years.

Firefighters responded there after receiving calls about 8:17 a.m. A mayday call, indicating a firefighter in distress, was issued through the communications system about 9:30 a.m.

Mayor William Wild said Woehlke was inside when a roof collapsed. His body was recovered about 12:40 p.m.

The department is devastated, Wild said, but "we're focusing on the family at this point."

"He dedicated his life to protecting the residents of Wayne and Westland, and this is a terrible loss for the firefighter's family and our entire community," Wild said in a statement. "This tragedy is a reminder to us all of the sacrifice that firefighters make along with their family and friends every single day."

Deputy Fire Chief Rob Arbini said Woehlkehad a "great attitude, loved coming to work."

Woehlke, a Dearborn resident, was married and the father of a 13-month-old girl.

Arbini said it's been a difficult day.

"Right now, it's one of those days that got us, and we're going to do everything possible to make sure it doesn't get us again," he said.

Arbini said Woehlke is the department's first firefighter killed while fighting a fire, though another firefighter died a few years ago of what was believed to be job-related cancer.

Firefighters were still putting out hot spots this afternoon at the strip mall, located at Hunter and Wayne roads. Fire departments -- including Inkster, Garden City, Livonia and Northville -- assisted.

By the afternoon, a large group of spectators gathered in the shopping center parking lot, and yellow caution tape cordoned off a significant chunk of the area in front of the burned remains of the buildings.

The acrid odor of smoke hung in the air, and firefighters could be seen shooting jets of water onto the remaining hot spots.

Bob Solocinski, 61, who lives in an apartment behind the strip mall, stood staring at the charred ruins and said most people don't appreciate the struggles firefighters can face.

"It's a shame," he said. "The building can be replaced. The firefighter can't."

As afternoon turned to early evening, a few ashen-faced Wayne-Westland firefighters trudged to their pickup in the parking lot and began removing their gear. They declined to comment, as did a firefighter at the station on Ford Road who was lowering the flags on a pole outside to half-staff.

Wayne and Westland merged fire departments in November. The department has 80 to 90 firefighters, including command staff. Arbini said the merger helped the department maintain service levels.

The Electric Stick is owned by George Marvaso, who also owns the adjacent Marvaso's Italian Grille. Marvaso, who sat with family in the Westland Shopping Plaza parking lot and watched firefighters work, pledged to rebuild.

"We're extremely remorseful for the fire department. The fire department in our community is the reason we're still in business 20 years later," Marvaso said of the support he's received over the years.

Marvaso, 70, said he lives in Novi but called Westland, where he raised four children, home. He said he began receiving calls about the blaze from his alarm company about 8:20 a.m., and noted his staff closed without any issues about 3 a.m.

Marvaso's daughter, Sunday Gaines, 45, of Westland, works as general manager at the two businesses.

"The whole thing's awful. Our thoughts are with the firefighters," she said.

Gaines said she's also concerned about the family's 90 employees, who are now out of work.

Nikki Pett, 27, of Garden City, a bartender and waitress at the Electric Stick, said she'll be back when they reopen.

"My heart's with the firefighter," she said. "I pray for his family."

State Rep. George Darany, D-Dearborn, said his thoughts and prayers are with Woehlke's loved ones and the Wayne-Westland Fire Department.

"Brian was a Dearborn resident, and it is never easy to learn of the passing of one of our community members," Darany said in a statement. "This terrible loss reminds us of the great sacrifices that our first responders and their families make every single day."

People who lived near Woehlke's family on Meridan, a quiet street of tidy homes with well-kept lawns, said he was always eager to lend a hand.

A few days ago, Woehlke rushed over to help when he saw Ewasek pulling bags of cedar mulch out of her car.

"He carried all those heavy bags around," Ewasek said, the mulch now spread around bushes and clusters of purple flowers in her front yard. "He cut my grass. He'd do anything you asked him to do, or needed done."

Craig Snapp, 32, said Woehlke was excited about being a father and doted on his young daughter. He talked last weekend about planning a day off to take her to see Thomas the Tank Engine at Greenfield Village.

Snapp's daughter, Julia, 5, picked dandelions and set them on the porch of Woehlke's house for his wife.

"Because her husband died," Julia said.

Snapp, a Dearborn firefighter, said he and Woehlke helped each other with home improvement projects. They didn't talk much about firefighting, he said.

"It hits a little close to home," Snapp said of Woehlke's death.

Ewasek's eyes welled with tears as she recalled a conversation she had with Woehlke about his line of work.

"He was so excited about being a fireman," she said. "He was applying early on, before he got the job. He said, 'Yep, this is it. I'm doing what I want to do.' "

Copyright 2013 - Detroit Free Press

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