Under slate-gray skies that reflected the somber, mournful mood, more than 100 firefighters and community members huddled together against a chill wind Friday night to memorialize Verga Fire Company firefighter James Heenan on the 10th anniversary of his death.
A pair of ladder trucks created an arch over the company’s memorial–one bearing a plaque in honor of Heenan, the other, the 1973 Mack Aerialscope truck he rode on that fateful New Year’s Day call a decade ago.
“Every time that pager goes off, Jimmy is in the back of my mind,” Verga chief Jeff Bilger said. In an emotion-choked speech, Bilger remembered Heenan as a driven, determined firefighter and a man of conviction.
Heenan, then a 37-year-old volunteer firefighter with 18 years of experience at Verga, made the ultimate sacrifice at a New Year’s Day fire on Atkins Avenue in 2001.
He rushed into that burning home, where firefighters believed people might have been trapped–an act that cost him his life, after the kitchen floor broke away beneath his feet, trapping him in the basement under a pile of burning debris.
Heenan survived the fall, but was burned on 74 percent of his body, and was rushed to Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where he underwent several surgeries in an attempt to save his life. He held on for nearly three months, eventually succumbing to his injuries at the end of March.
“Through thick and thin, Jimmy was a fighter,” Bilger said.
Ten years later, at least partly because of Heenan, some changes have come to how the four West Deptford fire companies operate.
“We worked as four independent fire departments,” Bilger said. “Now, township-wise, we’ve all come together.”
The companies train together, respond to structure fires together and support each other–firefighters and apparatus from Greenfields, Thorofare, Colonial Manor and Verga were side-by-side Friday night, joined by firefighters from National Park and Westville, the two mutual aid companies who responded to the Atkins Avenue fire.
Bilger said that, though firefighters hone skills they need for any situation and now respond with a rapid intervention team trained in firefighter rescue, firefighting is still a dangerous occupation. Bilger said he used to think he would never lose a fellow firefighter, but that thought process has changed.
“To say this can’t happen tomorrow–it can,” he said.
The difficult part is still moving on from the death of a brother firefighter, Bilger said.
“You just move along one day at a time,” he said.
As those gathered struggled to light their candles, passing the flame down the line of people stretched along the roadside, Deputy Mayor Len Daws compared it to Heenan’s life.
“It’s very symbolic of Jimmy’s life, and how he touched so many of us who are here this evening,” Daws said.
The wind blew out their candles, but it couldn’t extinguish the memories.
View a photo gallery from the memorial .