DOING MORE GOODNESS
When people fundraise and donate to FirefighterAid, they are not only doing a good deed, but they are also helping us provide resources and assistance to Firefighters and their families. Asking for help is not only hard for many people to do, but it can get complicated and change rather quickly. Each family's needs are unique, and we are happy to be able to share some of the ways that your donations and fundraising have helped us to be a hero to a hero in all sorts of different situations.
Thank you for helping us to do more good and help our fire family! We wouldn't be able to do this without your support and love. Please enjoy some of these special stories that we can share with you to show just exactly how you have helped a Firefighter and their family.
"What Firefighter Aid did for our family was above and beyond anything I could have ever thought possible. They were a gift from God, and made our dream become reality. We will never be able to say thank you enough, for making beautiful memories for our family, when life has been so difficult. Our relationship with FirefighterAid will forever be cherished."
- Jacki Dowling
"IRON" BILL DOWLING'S STORY:
Fire Captain William (Bill) Dowling of Houston Fire Department, Station 68, was one of fourteen firefighters injured in the Southwest Inn Fire on May 31, 2013. Now known as the deadliest blaze in HFD History, the fire claimed the lives of four firefighters and injured fourteen more. Captain Dowling led a rescue attempt into the structure and was pinned as the roof collapsed on top of him. Bill was fully conscious as his immobilized legs burned. When he was pulled from the flames, “Iron Bill” had only two concerns: that his fellow firefighters were alright, and that his wife Jacki be notified that he was going to be okay.
In the hospital, Bill’s condition worsened. Due to the severity of his injuries, he was placed in a medically-induced coma and had both legs amputated. Lack of oxygen had also inflicted substantial brain damage.
Iron Bill fights to get stronger, and his loving wife, Jacki, has been by his side since that fateful day in 2013. Bill and Jacki were married after he graduated from Marine Corps Boot Camp. Their first child, Forrest, was born while Bill was still an active duty Marine. In April 2014, 18-year-old Forrest Dowling graduted from Marine Corps Boot Camp, Mike Company. Bill is very proud of his son for following in his footsteps, and while he can no longer return the traditional greeting of fellow Marines, Iron Bill is working harder in rehabilitation than he did in Boot Camp almost 20 years ago.
FirefighterAid teamed up with the Wounded Warrior Project, Houston FD, Operation Oorah, and PsychArmor to bring Iron Bill and his family to San Diego in April 2014 to see Forrest become a Marine. FirefighterAid was responsible for Bill's families transportation and family events while they visted San Diego. We also raised over $2,000 at an Iron Bill inspired gym event to help pay for hotel costs and earned over $2,000 in medical help and donations while he was in America's Finest City.
A THANK YOU FROM BILL'S WIFE:
It isn't possible to articulate how grateful and humbled we are by the graciousness of FirefighterAid. My husband was catastrophically injured fighting a fire on May 31, 2013, in Houston, Texas. A trip to California, to see our son graduate from Marine Corp bootcamp, seemed nearly impossible, considering the huge amount of care my husband requires. What FirefighterAid did for our family was above and beyond anything I could have ever thought possible. They were a gift from God, and made our dream become reality. Our trip was seamlessly coordinated, all the way down to the shipping of his medical supplies and a hospital bed in his hotel room. All we had to do was enjoy our trip to sunny California! We were also catered to a baseball game, a trip to Sea World, dinner at Station 1, personal drivers for our crew, and so much more!!! We will never be able to say thank you enough, for making beautiful memories for our family, when life has been so difficult. Our relationship with FirefighterAid will forever be cherished.
Sadly, in March of 2017, FirefighterAid learned that we lost one of our friends and heroes, Bill "Iron" Dowling. The Houston Fire Department has lost one of its bravest champions, and the nation will be remembering his commitment to service for many years to come. Iron Bill died from injuries sustained in a hotel fire that killed four of his comrades. What has been called the deadliest day in the history of HFD is one many Houstonians will never forget. A massive fire raged through the Southwest Inn on May 31, 2013 and Captain Dowling and his crew rushed inside to battle the blaze. A roof collapsed, trapping several of the firefighters. Four of them, Matthew Renaud, Robert Bebee, Robert Garber and Anne Sullivan, did not survive. Their leader, Dowling, was left severely injured. After spending nearly six months in the hospital he emerged, but his life would never be the same. The captain, who was known for his strength and courage, was left to depend on others for care after suffering brain damage and having both legs amputated. But with his same "Iron Bill" inner strength, Dowling and his family pushed forward until he succumbed to his injuries.
We are forever grateful of the time we spent with Captain Dowling, his wife Jacki, and his children Forrest, Faith, and Foster. They will forever be part of our San Diego fire family. May Iron Bill rest in eternal peace.
IRON BILL PRESS LINKS
3/17/2017 - Capt. 'Iron Bill' Dowling honored in public memorial
3/14/2017 - Houston’s “Iron Bill” Dowling Passes Away
4/14/2014 - Injured Houston Firefigher reunites with son who is set to become a marine
4/25/2014 - Double-amputee Firefighgter beating the odds
4/25/2014 - MCRD Magazine
4/2014 - Iron Bill Fitness Challenge
4/2014 - MCRD Graduation photos by Bob Graham
"With FFAid assistance this year, we are in the moment, we are in the window of opportunity and, most importantly, Bodie is thriving and excelling. Thank you to each and every one who has come to aid our family."
- Dana Kuhn
BODIE KUHN'S STORY:
Bodie was diagnosed with Autism in 2012 at just two years old. Bodie went through many years enduring nearly 12 hours of specialized therapies in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Speech Therapy and Occupational Therapy. While Bodie is verbal he does struggle significantly with speech and language. However, he is emotionally connected to his family and his friends and Spider-man…..a very compassionate little man he is.
His father, Dustin, had always been pushing himself to test for SDFD, but put all things on hold for Bodie. When they felt they were in a good place with all things involving their son, Dustin went for it! Dustin is now a San Diego City Firefighter. He is so very happy to be part of such an amazing department and to be able to serve his community on every shift.
In 2014, the family had to make some significant financial adjustments to get Dustin his dream job, including pay cuts and his mother going part-time to ensure Bodie’s needs were being met.
They knew they wanted to involve Bodie in a music therapy based program as: 1. He LOVES to sign and dance, and 2. It has proven to assist in the development of speech and comprehension. His age gives him the best window of opportunity to make a difference in his development.
CANCER CAN KISS MY AXE STORY:
In October of 2018, FirefighterAid had the pleasure of partnering with Lorraine Hutchinson, her Cancer Can Kiss My Axe team, Retiree Mike Merrikan, and the SDFD Motorcycle Club Wind & Fire to raise money for Susan G. Koman and our Cancer Awareness and Prevention Program. There were just under 100 riders join us for our inaugural rally, and we raised almost $2,000 for FirefighterAid.
Lorraine had come to us as a concerned retiree of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and breast cancer survivor, who wanted to give back to the communities that she holds so close to her heart, the Fire Department and those battling cancer. If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to work with Lorraine, you know that cancer was a fool to step foot into her life. After she won her battle with breast cancer, she continues to fight. We’re so grateful she’s shared part of her journey with us. We’re so excited to get the 2019 event up and running! Keep an eye out for details and get ready to ride with us!
"Not only did the FirefighterAid help my family while I was in a coma, they helped me recover back to my job with full, caring support. No one knows what the FirefighterAid is truly capable of until you are in real need for help. I can not imagine my recovery with out them. YOU GUYS ARE ANGELS. THANK YOU!"
- Dre Dominguez
DRE DOMINGUEZ'S STORY:
Her incredible story is significant not just because of our chance encounter, but also because a team of dedicated pulmonologists refused to give up while resuscitating her. The team of specialists made a decision to place Dre on an extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) unit, a highly sophisticated bypass machine that they had never used before on a critical asthma patient. Their decision and Dre’s strong will to survive saved her life.
Dre spent the two weeks prior to her medical crisis feeling a little under the weather. She had a bit of a cough, felt a little sleepy and, at times, felt some heaviness in her chest. She brushed it off as a slight cold. Working in a busy, multi-apparatus fire station, it seems that someone on shift is always fighting illness. So Dre thought it was simply her turn. Even while feeling sluggish, however, she kept up all her normal activities. She even participated in the “Fight for Air” firefighter challenge, which includes climbing 31 stories in the San Diego Omni hotel as a fund-raiser for the American Lung Association.
The morning of March 9th, 2012, Dre arrived at work feeling more rundown that usual. Before she had time to focus on herself, she was dispatched on a medical call. At the scene, she began to realize she was more than just a little run down; she was struggling to breathe.
The SDFD ALS engine 1 crew immediately took Dre aside and began to assess her vital signs. Her oxygen saturation (SpO2) was in the low 90s; she had tight, wet, junky, diminished lung sounds and flushed skin. They offered to work her up right there and transport her to the hospital, but like most emergency responders, she was more concerned about the primary patient and said she would go see her primary physician after the call.
She signed off shift and went home sick. Once at home, she realized this was no ordinary asthma attack; she was getting progressively worse. She was dyspneic on exertion and seriously “tripoding.” She finally gave in and asked her roommate to drive her to the emergency department (ED) of Sharp Memorial Hospital. This is where the story of her survival takes an amazing, unexplainable turn. The ED near her home, and in her normal response district, is fantastic. She knows everyone there by name and is completely comfortable there. Yet, in a strange twist of fate, she asked to be taken to the Sharp Memorial Hospital, where they do heart transplants and other extraordinary medical and surgical procedures with equipment and devices not found in other hospital facilities. This was just one in a string of extraordinary events that led to her remarkable care and survival.
Dre experienced two additional unusual occurrences before she reached the medical team at the ED. When she arrived at the hospital, no ambulances were parked at the ED entrance and no patients were waiting in the waiting room. From her past experience as a paramedic, she knew that happens as often as Haley’s Comet.
She arrived weak, dyspneic, flushed and with a heart rate of 100. Over the next two hours, she was given at least nine breathing treatments and Benadryl. Despite the constant treatment, however, her condition continued to deteriorate.
Dre’s friend, a seasoned paramedic, was there by her side every moment and knew that it was going to be bad. Dre’s friend became even more concerned when Sharp pulmonologist Richard S. Sacks, MD, walked into the room. He exuded a commanding presence and gave several simultaneous orders to staff, including ordering continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and Dre’s immediate transfer to the intensive care unit (ICU).
Once his firm orders were presented to the ED staff, Dre’s friend remembers that Sacks personally began to focus 100% of his attention on Dre, explaining his thoughts on why Dre was deteriorating and telling her what the Sharp team would be doing to attempt to turn her condition around.
CPAP was applied, but it didn’t give her any relief—nor did bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP). By now, she was consistently presenting an accelerated heart rate of 170 and a blood pressure of 200/100. She was placed on Solumedrol and was now fighting to breathe.
Sacks then told Dre she was going to be intubated. She knew what that meant and initially refused. So a small table and pillow were placed in front of her to facilitate a tripod position. Once her head started bobbing and her stare became vacant, she was told it was time for a tube. Dre’s reply to her friend was, “Please don’t let them intubate me. I won’t come back.” She remembers experiencing an overwhelming feeling of impending doom.
Another Sharp pulmonologist, Thomas E. Lawrie, MD, performed the intubation with several of Dre’s medic friends present. Dre was intubated via rapid sequence intubation. Lawrie successfully intubated with an 8.0 tube and no issues. When the pulmonologist began to dial in the ventilator settings, however, trouble occurred. Dre wasn’t taking to the vent at all.
Dre’s friends recall the next 90 minutes of heroic efforts by Lawrie—making adjustments, intermittently bagging her and performing forced exhalation to raise her SpO2 levels, which soon plummeted down into the 40s.
It was determined that after CPAP and BiPAP, Dre had lapsed into status asthmaticus. She continued to try to breathe against the tube but could not. But he refused to give up on his efforts to calm her down and enable her to breathe.
Dre then began to develop extensive subcutaneous emphysema. She soon had no distinguishable facial features; she was swollen down to her toes. But there was no actual pneunomothorax present, just overwhelming intrathoracic pressure that was inhibiting her ability to breathe. The decision was made to put her on heliox, a blend of helium and oxygen at a 60/40 ratio, in an attempt to decrease that pressure. That treatment was started, but Dre’s condition continued in a downward spiral.
Medically, the worst appeared to be over for Dre, but mentally, it had just begun. After days of heavy narcotics and sedation, she began to feel the effects of withdrawals. She was diaphoretic and began to vomit out her NG tube. This caused anxiety-induced chest pain that she described as getting hit by a truck, or having a myocardial infarction.
The staff tried to use fentanyl and zofran to help with the pain and her nausea; they ended up putting her on a propofol drip, hoping she would relax and sleep. After two days of what Dre described as horror, she asked to have all meds stopped. As her athletic background and training began to kick back in, she began to rebound physically and mentally. She felt after all the meds had worn off that she had to reconnect her brain to her body.
She was released from the ICU 24 hours later and started on a regiment breathing treatments and extensive physical therapy to help her sit, stand and walk. This well-conditioned firefighter/paramedic and athlete found it extremely exhausting just to walk from her bed to her chair.
Her mother was told to expect 60 days in the hospital and 60 days of physical therapy. But this gifted athlete was out in just 12 days and back on the job in four months. She was put on lovenox and coumadin for one and half months to help with clots to her arm and neck, as well as prevention for future risk of pulmonary embolisms.
Dre still has occasional periods of memory loss and stumbles on her words, but she considers these complications minor, and they don’t interfere with her profession or personal activities. Dre knows that at any point, it all could have turned on a dime. While talking about all of her activities and accomplishments, she said, “I never waited for a tragic event to start living my life.” She would have been at peace if she had died, knowing she had accomplished so much and meant the world to so many people.
Lucky for Dre and all of us she is healthy and well and back to work and supporting FirefighterAid in her spare time. We are so amazed by her strength and stong will!
DRE DOMINGUEZ PRESS LINKS:
1/9/2020 - Paramedic Gives Back
3/9/2016 - Paramedic Survives Severe Asthma Attack
"Please give everyone our sincere thanks for the help you all have provided for our family. We are so grateful for FirefighterAid"
- Bree Drips
DRIPS FAMILY STORY:
Brandon and Bree welcomed their third child into the world in December 2016. Their family was overcome with joy knowing that each addition is a true blessing from God. However, their joy was short lived. Shortly after Bree and Brandon returned home from the hospital with their new baby Hunter, Bree began experiencing excruciating pain and severe swelling. Bree was immediately taken to the Emergency Room and shortly after admitted to the ICU. Bree was placed on antibiotics and doctors began running tests to determine the cause of her illness. Initially, the doctors suspected an unspecified infection of some sort. However, further tests determined that she had a rare bacterial infection that required immediate emergency surgery. The infection was very aggressive and will require many surgeries and an extensive stay at the ICU.
As a precaution New Born baby Hunter was taken to the NICU and began receiving antibiotics after exhibiting signs of a similar bacterial infection as his mother. Hunter had positively responded to treatment and improved every day.
Friends and community were overwhelmingly supportive and have reached out to us with their thoughts and prayers. Brandon has been splitting his time between his wife in the ICU, Hunter in the NICU and his two other children at home.
Brandon has been the sole provider for the family for the last few years, since Bree has been in nursing school. They had planned on Bree beginning her career in nursing after Hunter was born. However, due to this unforeseen situation we are not sure that will be possible in the near future. Adding to the complexity of the situation Brandon has been on disability after sustaining a shoulder injury while at work. He underwent surgery and has been recovering since. As you can imagine this has been another problem during this difficult time.
FirefighterAid and other organizations all stepped up to help the Drips family. FirefighterAid was able to help them hire a nanny who comes to their home to care for their children so that Bree could get her focus on recovering, nursing school, and baby Hunter. The family is doing well and Bree is healing nicely.
A THANK YOU FROM BREE:
I don't even know where to start. I'm sitting here thinking to myself it is going to be nearly impossible to describe how truly grateful I am to each and every one of you. Your thoughts and prayers healed me and my son. They got me home in time for Christmas with my family. They are, no doubt, the reason I am alive today and the reason my three little children still have a mommy. Your donations have allowed my family and I to focus on my recovery without the constant stress of how we are going to make ends meet. You are all amazing people, and I am forever changed by your kindness. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Although I have a long road ahead of me, I am getting stronger and better everyday. I am now off of my antibiotics, and home health PT comes out to work with me once to twice a week. Attempting to stand for the first time a week or so ago was discouraging, but since then I have reached that goal, and I am now walking around my house with only one crutch! I am just taking everything day by day and looking forward to the day I can chase my crazy little kids around again. I cannot tell you enough how thankful my family and I are for all of your support during our time of need.
"I climbed with Bill in my heart, little Bill by my side, my favorite DMB song serenading our team, sporting some Padres flare, alongside members of Bill’s former fire house and colleagues from CDCR = some of Bill’s life passions."
- Donna Stutzman
DONNA STUTZMAN'S STORY:
Captain Bill Stutzman was a Fire Captain at Donovan's Correctional Facility and was extremely proud of his role there. He had the honor of participating on strike teams during some of the infamous California wild fires. Bill was a Stair Climb veteran and enjoyed climbing with his team, CDCR. Sadly, Bill passed away this past March from heart failure and, in lieu of flowers, Bill’s wife Donna asked all her friends and family to honor her husband by making a donation to FirefighterAid. But Donna didn’t stop there. Having never done the Stair Climb before she decided to register for the event and jump on to team CDCR to climb in honor of Bill.
Due to the fantastic fundraising of team CDCR they earned their place as an Honor Team. The team began their 110 story climb with Bill's picture on the big screen and his favorite song serenading their start time, "Two Step" by Dave Matthews Band. Donna climbed with Bill in her heart, her Padres shoes laced tightly and alongside of some of Bill’s former Fire House colleagues. Donna told us this was the hardest thing she has ever done but when it comes to this sensational fire wife, we know she is extremely tough. We could not be more proud of her, but most importantly we now have a lifelong friend. Donna has played a huge role in almost $8,000 in donations to FirefighterAid. Donna, thank you for turning your sorrowful times into such a positive feat for our fire community, we love you!
"This bathroom remodel has give Grace the room to grow and flourish to help her reach her full potential."
GRACE MELANSON'S STORY:
Grace is the Frozen-loving, always smiling, daughter of a Firefighter. Grace has Muscular Dystrophy and uses a wheelchair to get around. As Grace grows older her needs are changing, and with that is the need for a fully ADA-friendly bathroom. We feel so fortunate that we are able to help Grace with this need and help build the bathroom she deserves. Along with the professionals at XP Builders and a handful of our amazing volunteers we began building this bathroom for Grace the first week of March 2016. Now that she has a new shower, shower chair, and more room, it is much easier for her and her mom to play salon and enjoy all of the new amenities.
GOVX GIVES BACK:
On June 7th, 2019, our friends at GovX invited FirefighterAid to a very special evening at a San Diego Padres game at Petco Park. They hosted an entire suite with complementary snacks, treats, and drinks for some of our fire families to gather for a fun-filled game night. It was an enjoyable evening for some of our Board of Directors, community supporters, and FirefighterAid team, but most importantly, for some of our fire families who needed a night out.
It was a First Responder Friday, the pre-game and opening ceremonies were packed with firefighters from the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, and we all cheered on the Padres against the Washington Nationals. Not only did we have the best cheering section in the whole park, but the Padres won! Dianne Karty's daughter, Lexi, even caught a Pad Squad squishy ball.
The suite was full of emotion due to some life events that some of our members were going through. There were hugs and tears and more hugs. The one emotion that was most prominent was love. The tears that were shed were those of joy and appreciation.
GovX has been a huge supporter of our mission and our fire family for the last five years and counting. We’re beyond fortunate to have a national brand like GovX in our own backyard that genuinely cares about giving back to the community in which they thrive and operate. In addition to the Padres night out, GovX was the top sponsor of our stair climb event this year donating over $20,000. There's not a community partner out there that gives back to us like GovX does. Thank you, GovX for being more than a supporter and sponsor, thank you for being a part of our family.
"Dear Secret Santa,My family is so grateful for all of your kindness and generosity during Christmas. Your gifts to us deeply touched our hearts. Thanks you all for everything!!
- The O'Neill Family
"I just got home and saw the lights go on. What a thrill! My little heart jumped for joy! What a special treat to cheer up my holidays. You guys are THE BEST!"
- Ursula Sorensen
2017 HOLIDAY HELPERS STORY:
The holidays can be tough on anyone there's always so much to do. From hanging the lights, decorating the tree, shopping for gifts, baking cookies, to cooking a feast. It's enough to make you feel very overwhelmed. Now, image you have all that to do and your Firefighter husband used to help you with all of that, and this will be your first holiday season without him. Now, imagine that you are a Firefighter who is battling cancer, and have two young children, and a wife that works full-time and takes care of everything. Would you have the time or energy to do all the things on your list that the holidays require? This is why we love to step up and help our Fire Families during the holidays and any time. We just can't do it alone, we have some amazing holiday helpers by our side!
2016 HOLIDAY HELPERS STORY:
The holidays can be tough on anyone there's always so much to do. From hanging the lights, decorating the tree, shopping for gifts, baking cookies, to cooking a feast. It's enough to make you feel very overwhelmed. Now, image you have all that to do and your Firefighter husband used to help you with all of that, and this will be your first holiday season without him. Now, imagine that you are a Firefighter who is battling cancer, and have two young little girls, and a wife that works full-time and takes care of everything. Would you have the time or energy to do all the things on your list that the holidays require? This is why we love to step up and help our Fire Families during the holidays and any time. We just can't do it alone, we have some amazing holiday helpers by our side!
THE HOLIDAY LIGHTERS:
Our good friends over at The Holiday Lighters can make the task of hanging the holiday lights a piece of cake! The Holiday Lighters was founded by two Firefighters with a passion to provide unparalleled customer service. They have been providing skilled residential & commercial holiday lighting services since 1999. They provide complete installation, removal, and storage at an affordable price.
This company holds a special place in our hearts this year as they hung lights on the home of a Firefighter who is battling cancer and a widow who lost her husband two years ago. We can’t thank them enough for helping our friends through a tough time this holiday.
ALLIANT SPECIALITY SERVICES:
A group of very special do gooders at Alliant Speciality Insurance Services decided that they wanted to help a Fire Family who was dealing with a lot during the holidays in 2016. They held bake sales, sold hot chocolate around their building, and made a nacho bar all to raise money to help us. And that they did! $2,300 in total plus Padres tickets for the family. This special group is full of heart and genuinely support our Fire Community. We just can't thank them enough
In 2017, they came back and told us that they wanted to host Christmas dinner for San Diego Fire-Rescue Department's busiest station, Station 17. They worked all year long on fundraising and doing office challenges until they raised enough money to make it a dinner 17's would never forget! This special group is full of heart and genuinely support our Fire Community. We just can't thank them enough!
"Being brave means that you stand up and do something despite being afraid! That's what makes a Hero!"
"Thank you so much for your touching email. I'm very happy and honored to join you guys this year for this noble event. So many of you give so much to this plight and it is all just so moving. I appreciate all the work you have done, both with the event and for raising money for firefighters with your organization FirefighterAid."
- Jim Smagala
JIM SMAGALA'S 2016 SD911MSC KEYNOTE SPEAKER SPEECH:
"It was a clear day much like any other, cool and crisp, as me and the Chief made our way to FDNY headquarters in downtown Brooklyn. The "Chief" was Assistant Chief of Department-Joseph Callan, and he was the guy in charge of the entire city whenever there was a large fire in one of the five boroughs. I was his Aide at the time, handling all communications between us and the FDNY, and any other agencies that we were operating with, including: FEMA, OEM, the NYPD and the Mayor's office. We strolled down the hall with our coffees in hand on our way to Chief of Department-Peter Ganci's office to go over the day's events. No sooner did we enter his office when we heard, and saw, the first plane hit the World Trade Center out of his office window.
Immediately, we all marched down to our department vehicles and flew over the Brooklyn Bridge to the scene. We were there in a matter of minutes. The first thing I remember when I opened the door of our vehicle was the intense heat, and smell of jet fuel permeating the air. Suddenly there came a loud, thunderous noise overhead, and with nothing but this quick warning, the second plane crashed into the South Tower just above our heads. We all fell away in instinctive cover, our hands to our heads, and then looked up in utter horror at the scene that was unfolding in front of us. We quickly regrouped and as I followed Chief Callan into the lobby of the North Tower I was pulled aside by Chief of Department Ganci who told me that I was to inform Chief Callan that he was in charge of the North Tower and I was to inform Chief Donald Burns that he was in charge of the South. As I caught up to these men, I had no idea that those would be the last words Chief Ganci would ever speak to me, or that those would be the last words I would ever speak to Chief Burns.
BANG, BANG. Loud gunshot type noises kept coming from just outside the tower lobby. Strange noises but, there was barely time to give it much thought. Companies were reporting in left and right now, and I remember feeling a chill run up my spine when I heard Engine Company 226 check in at the South Tower on my citywide radio. Engine 226 was my Brother Stan's company. I didn't know if he was working or not at the time, but I had an eerie feeling that he was, and I also had an eerie feeling that I was going to die this day.
Being an Aide to the Assistant Chief of Department meant that I wasn't required to wear bunker gear very often, in fact I had never worn it up to that point. We stayed outside the fire buildings mostly, usually setting up a command post away from the smoke and the flames. It was a job I had only been doing for about a year. The Chief motioned for me through the crowd of emergency responders and when I reached him he simply said, "Go get our gear". I immediately responded and made my way past the crowds of scurrying people toward the west exit. BANG, BANG, BANG. The noises grew louder and louder as I stepped outside and made my way to our vehicle to grab our gear. Between me and the vehicle however, were piles of clothes strewn about the sidewalk, as though some jealous wife had just emptied her husband's dresser out the second story window. How strange, but no time to think about that. It wasn't until I returned from our vehicle with the bunker gear that I understood the clothing. People were hanging out the windows 80+ stories high. Above the plane crash and the flames were terrified, panic stricken people, desperate people. Have you ever been in a fire where the flames were so close they were licking your butt? What do people in these situations do? I'll tell you exactly what they do, they jump. I saw them jumping, scared for their lives, convinced their only hope was to somehow survive the impact. BANG, BANG, and two more lives are taken, leaving only piles of clothing behind as their bodies explode on impact.
I made my way back into the tower lobby deftly avoiding the human projectiles I was now aware of overhead. This is where I ran into Chief Ray Downey. The head of the FDNY Special Operations Command, Chief Downey was the most respected and decorated Chief on the job, regarded by many as the best, and more importantly my friend. I had grown up with his kids and he had been instrumental in my becoming a New York City Firefighter. We had talked many times before. There were no words now though. We looked each other square in the eye and that was it. Just a look. The look of men on a journey, a journey they know they won't return from, yet they charge forward stoically, regardless. It would be the last time I would see him alive as well.
Suddenly, a loud roar grew closer and closer followed by a rush of debris into the North Tower lobby that overtook us like a wave at the beach. Total darkness and then dead silence. The South Tower had fallen and its debris was deposited atop us in the lobby of the North Tower.
I dreamt of my childhood, about playing baseball at Town Field, going swimming in our family pool and about the time I fell off my bike and got a concussion. I dreamt of my wedding day, my kids' births and of all the times we shared on family vacations together. I dreamt of everything that had ever happened to me up to that point in my life. All chronologically and in such vivid detail, as though I had miraculously lived my life all over again. All in the matter of a split second. Then I awoke, having never been asleep. Awakened to the fact that I was indeed alive. Two feelings then swept over me. The first was God touching me, somehow plucking me out of the rubble with his thumb and forefinger, shaking the dirt off my butt and putting me back on my path. The second was the strange sense that my brother and I had traded places. I having survived, and he having surrendered. Sacrificing his life for mine to save my kids from losing a father. As it turned out my brother had indeed perished in that very moment. I had felt it. I didn't know it at the time, but somehow I did. Just 36 years old, he left behind his pregnant wife and their soon to be only child, Alexa (now 15 years old), who like many other children born after 9/11 never got the chance to meet her father. His remains have never been recovered. He has no true grave site. He is instead, buried in the bottomless tomb that lies beneath ground zero, having given his life for the benefit of others including, and more exclusively, myself.
After banding together a small group of us exited the building carrying Father Judge’s lifeless body with us. As I looked toward the remains of the South Tower, I was unsure of exactly what I was seeing at the time. Had the South tower really fallen? I didn’t have much time to think about it though, as I only got as far as the corner of the North Tower when I heard another eerie rumbling coming from directly above me. As I looked up I saw the North Tower crumbling down toward me. I ran instinctively, and again, as before in the lobby, a wave of debris would overcome me. It would drive me to the ground, blow me down the street, and cover me in cement and dust. Again, I thought my life was over. Again, I would escape death. In pitch darkness, unable to breath, I would make my way to a fire engine and grab an air tank. It was now quiet, desolate, and pitch dark, as though the sun had been blotted out from the sky and we had reached the end of the world. I would survive the end of the world as well.
There is much more to the story but, like so many bodies, it is buried at the bottom of the World Trade Center. I survived but, I would sustain many injuries, both physical and psychological, some immediate, and some lying-in-wait to surface in the years to come.
I would undergo 3 surgeries following 9/11 and retire a year later. Like many others after 9/11, I wallowed in misery for many years thereafter, I struggled to make sense of a senseless world, where people would do something like this. I didn’t know what to do after I left the fire department and I watched many of my friends and brethren go down some very dark paths. I watched as they floundered in life, many succumbing to the craziness that consumed them afterwards. I looked at them and knew I couldn’t do that to myself , my wife or my kids, so I sought the help of a therapist and with her help and the support of my wife Denise and my family I worked through my fears in time. I decided that I still had something to give. I wasn’t helping people anymore but I knew I still wanted to. So at 48 years old I went back to college fulltime. That was 4 ½ years ago, and 2 days from now, at 52 years old, I am proud to say that I will be graduating and beginning a new career as a Physician Assistant where I can again concentrate my efforts towards helping people.
It was a long and arduous road and it took a lot of courage and bravery to live through 9/11, but it took even more to get on with my life after it. You know, I coached a lot of kids in my day, and I’ve heard a few say over the years that they were scared to do certain things, or afraid of certain situations when the pressure was on, that they’re not as “brave” as me, “you’re a hero”. And I say no,no,no being brave doesn’t mean that your unafraid. BEING BRAVE MEANS THAT YOU STAND UP AND DO SOMETHING DESPITE BEING AFRAID! THAT’S WHAT MAKES A HERO!
So I say to you all, that if we can all learn one thing from the events of 9/11, it is that it is alright to be afraid. I promise you that all those people involved in the World Trade Center that day were afraid, including me, but fear does something to you when your staring in its face, it makes you ACT. Face up to your fears. We’re all afraid of something, even those that pretend not to be. IT’S OK TO BE AFRAID, but STAND UP AND DO SOMETHING, CHALLENGE YOURSELF, CHALLENGE SOMEONE ELSE, MAKE A DIFFERENCE, DESPITE BEING AFRAID! THAT IS WHAT BRAVERY IS ALL ABOUT!
God bless the brave men and women that protect this country every day, god bless the brave families that have gone on in the face of tragedy, and god bless the brave men and women who lost their lives on 9/11. Thank you."
MELISSA WHIPPLE'S STORY:
This year, FirefighterAid had the privilege to assist Gary and Melissa Whipple with some ADA home renovations. Gary retired from the department 11 years ago, and Melissa is his absolutely charming wife. If you’re fortunate enough to know these two, then you know that they are a truly perfect couple. When you’re around them, they have this innate ability to make you feel at home and so comfortable in their presence. I felt this since the very first day when I met them and every day since.
In 2016, Melissa started experiencing a minor limp after running a charity 5K. She thought that she may have pulled a calf muscle, so she tried massage therapy, chiropractic care, and many adventures in acupuncture. None of which was able to relieve her pain. So, she finally went to see her doctor. One doctor turned into many doctors. She likens it to taking a “Magical Medical Mystery Tour”. That mystery tour lasted a year and a half. Her limp morphed into foot drop causing her to drag it periodically. She also began to fall more often. She was prescribed a medical brace to wear on her right foot to hold it in the correct position. This meant, "bye-bye to cute shoes”, as Melissa says. She turned to using hiking sticks, various types of canes, and walkers to improve her mobility and balance.
In February 2018, a year and a half after her first symptoms, Melissa was finally diagnosed with ALS. (ALS or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.) Why does it take so long for a diagnosis you may be thinking? Unfortunately, there is no single test to diagnose for ALS, only a lot of other tests to eliminate everything else. From the moment you are diagnosed with ALS, the disease starts robbing you of things and it never stops. It eventually takes your life. ALS is a horrible, horrible thief. This is the part of the story where I had to face the reality and the weight of it all.
There is no current treatment or cure for ALS. Not even a little one that will buy us some more time with our sweet friend, Melissa. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The brain sends messages through the spinal cord to the muscles throughout your body which is how we move. ALS kills the brain's motor-neurons, which eliminates the ability to send messages to the muscles to direct them to move.
I had to face the fact that if things don’t change and a cure or some treatment for the prolonging of this disease isn’t found, I will lose my new friend that I care for so deeply. We share this story with you to educate, raise awareness, and most of all… in hopes of a cure.
You wouldn’t know by looking at her, but Melissa is one of the most fierce and outspoken little warriors I have ever met. She is one to fight, and you will never see her with a bad attitude, sitting alone by herself feeling like her life is happening to her. She knows that her life is hers, that she is in control and she has a say in it, even with an ALS diagnosis.
No two ALS patients experience the same journey. Here are some things that Melissa has taught me about ALS, and I think it’s important to share them with you. Some patients progress very quickly, while others progress more slowly. 90% of ALS patients die between 2-5 years after the first symptoms appear. 80% of ALS patients are male. 10% of patients have a “familial link” in which they have inherited a “defective” gene from an immediate relative. The remaining 90% have what is referred to as sporadic ALS meaning there is no clear identified cause, which is what Melissa has. About 30,000 people in the United States are currently suffering with ALS.
This story isn't just about ALS and how horrible of a disease it is. It’s a story about new friendships, an amazing woman, her supportive husband, and the organization known as the Relief Association doing all the good things you would expect us to do in this situation.
So back to the day that I showed up at their house to meet the Whipples for the first time to check in on the renovation. I had no idea I’d walk out of their house with two new forever friends. Over the course of 2 months, our team generously donated their time and skills to rebuild a bathroom fit for our retired firefighter and his best gal. During this remodel, the very small bathroom could be accused of containing a few too many Captains and not enough space. Thanks to all our retired and skilled fire family volunteers: Ron Trafton, Scott Trafton, Mark Tex, Jerry Sadler, Don McKinney, and Mike Nuanes. A few Coronas may have been harmed in the making of this bathroom, but that is to be expected.
So, what do abalone shells have to with any of this?! When the bathroom remodel was finally finished, the Whipples had a small gathering to thank all of the people who came together to work on their project. The theme of Melissa's bathroom is ocean and beach. From the beautiful tiles she picked out that look like ocean water to all the seashell accents, she did a phenomenal job designing her new space. Melissa gives extra special recognition to Susie Trafton who helped select all the beautiful bathroom fixtures, tile, and paint. When I finally saw the bathroom completely finished, a nesting set of abalone shells on a shelf caught my eye. They were so perfect and each one fit into the next as though mother nature had designed them to be found across different locations in the world, but to all come together as one in the end.
As I looked at the nesting shells, I was reminded of a time three years previously when I was walking alone on the beach in Encinitas. On that walk I found what I believed was the world’s tiniest abalone shell. It was a bit smaller than a nickel and in perfect shape. I was so amazed that I even saw it, but I knew it was special and held onto it. After seeing those shells in Melissa’s bathroom, I knew the small one I had found years before was meant for her. A few weeks later I brought it to her in a tiny bag and left it for her on her counter in a card.
That tiny abalone shell made me really think about a lot of things, fate being one of them. It made me think about friends and the way people come into and leave your life, and ultimately how I will leave this life one day. I started to become very upset that I will potentially lose my new sweet friend, Melissa, someday. I cried. I said to her on the phone one day that I hated ALS and that it is a selfish monster. While she didn’t disagree with me, she said, “it’s not all bad, it brought you into my life." I cried some more. I didn’t understand it, here she is the one fighting this disease every day and she had something positive to say about it. This horrible demon of a disease that takes everything from you, even your smile. How could she find something positive to say about it? That’s when I realized all the things it can’t take from you. Thank you, Melissa Whipple, for being a pure ray of light that shines in my life.
To learn more, please reach out to The ALS Association of Greater San Diego, who provides wonderful support, mobility equipment, and sponsors wonderful events and outings for ALS patients, caregivers, and their families throughout San Diego County.
USD GREEK WEEK STORY:
In May of 2019, we partnered with the University of San Diego’s Fraternity and Sorority Life organization to raise money and awareness for FirefighterAid and what we do. What began as a handwritten note on the floor of a station from two big-hearted University of San Diego students who wanted to help the firefighters who fight for their community’s safety, turned in to a fantastic fundraiser for our organization.
Over the course of two weeks, we raised over $7,000. The Greek Life chapters even had a friendly competition in which they did a comfort box supply drive. Their drive yielded enough items to create over 300 comfort bags! Now, that’s a lot of toothpaste, hand sanitizer and bandaids!
We’re sending a HUGE thank you to Mia Westphal and Gus Brigantino for all their support and dedication to making this project run so smoothly. It wouldn’t have been successful without them. Keep an eye out for the USD team at this year’s stair climb event. They go big and we can’t wait to see what they do next.