On the cover of a 75-page book, half-staff flags encircle a stone monument offset by wide brick walkway. It’s morning – or mourning – at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md. on May 6, 2016.
The day before, longtime Georgia firefighter Steve Lapierre became the first to die in the department’s 64-year history after suffering cardiac arrest at a brush fire.
The volume contains a compilation of cards, notes and letters sent to the Georgia Fire Department from such storied outfits as the FDNY. A handwritten note from U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) laments the loss of Lapierre, “an outstanding firefighter and community servant.”
Most entries come from other units, both near (Bristol, Vt.) and far (Maui, HI.) West Hollywood, Calif. public safety officials informed GFD it adjourned its May 9 meeting in Lapierre’s memory.
“It gives you an idea of the brotherhood,” said GFD member Malcolm Baker, who served with Lapierre for the latter’s 47-year tenure and assembled the tribute at his printing business, Regal Art Press.
Malcolm and his son, Chief Keith Baker, joined Lapierre’s family earlier this month at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Maryland where Lapierre was one of 95 firefighters honored at this year’s service.
Thousands attended the 36th annual memorial, including family and colleagues of the 75 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2016. Aside from Lapierre, Vermont lost 26-year-old Justin Beebe of Springfield, who “died living his ultimate dream,” his obituary reads, on Aug. 13, 2016.Beebe, a wildland firefighter in the USDA Forest Service’s Lolo Hotshot Crew based out of Montana, died after being struck by a tree while fighting the Strawberry Fire in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park.
Fatalities like Beebe’s account for just 6 percent of last year’s line-of-duty deaths, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association. At 42 percent, the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths by far was medical events, which includes the heart attack that killed Lapierre.
For Chief Baker, that’s the only potential upside to a tragedy: Deaths like Lapierre’s indicate departments are following safety practices.
“It’s hard enough as a chief to think about this process of losing a firefighter, but ours was a medical issue that we probably couldn’t have changed,” Chief Baker said.
In Emmitsburg, the chief met with his peers, including one from North Carolina reeling from the death of a 20-year-old volunteer firefighter who perished battling a blaze in a strip mall three days after Lapierre collapsed on Georgia’s brush fire scene.
“I have, I don’t know how many times, thanked the lucky stars that that wasn’t what happened to us,” Chief Baker said. “I can’t imagine.”
He was relieved, then, in the absence of blame from the report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health following Lapierre’s death.
“A lot of them see breakdown of fire department communications or tactics,” he said. “On that end of it, we really were OK.”
The extent of the report’s recommendations was limited to health-related department practices, like physicals or fitness programs, he said.
At the April 27 brush fire, Keith and fellow firefighters Michael Baker and Ric Nye attended to Lapierre once he collapsed. Lapierre’s family credits their swift response with prolonging his life, which lasted another eight days, long enough for loved ones to say goodbye.
Lapierre’s unexpected death struck the department he served for nearly 50 years, including 18 as town fire warden and previously as an assistant chief. Had his heart attack occurred even 15 minutes before it did, though, GFD could have lost even more.
“I was riding in the fire truck when he was driving,” Chief Baker said. “If it was gonna happen, it was better it happened there.”
The veil of shock and sorrow over the department has mostly dissipated in the year-and-a-half since Lapierre died, but the veteran firefighter still casts a presence.
“He’s talked about a lot,” Chief Baker said.
“Almost constantly,” his father added, especially by longtime members who may have never known a GFD without Lapierre.
Chief Baker recalled his youth as a “firehouse brat,” Lapierre a constant fixture in the station. Indeed, Lapierre’s roots extended to his late father, Lucien, whose stint as GFD chief in the 1960s saw the department’s first fire truck purchase.
Lapierre “lived for farming and firefighting,” his obituary says. He started young and spent 32 years as a St. Albans City career firefighter. Most of all, he loved working on and driving tanker trucks. Georgia’s Tanker 2 – the oldest model – was widely known as Lapierre’s favorite.
Today, vestiges of Lapierre’s service are enshrined in a glass cabinet at the station’s entrance. Soon, Chief Baker will add more mementos, or perhaps create a new one entirely to house a replica of Lapierre’s posthumous badge from the National Fall Firefighters Foundation.
Lapierre’s name and year of death are cast in metal beneath a depiction of the national memorial. That monument now, too, includes Lapierre’s name.
The Bakers drove 500 miles to see their colleague memorialized. In Emmitsburg, they were met with an expertly orchestrated production, a weekend of proceedings planned to the minutiae.
An intense FBI security clearance allowed the Bakers wide access to the federal facility, guided by four volunteers from area fire departments.
Often, these volunteers return annually after memorializing their own colleagues. Keith and Malcolm have discussed doing the same next year.
The main event on Sunday was a two-hour service replete with much of the somber pomp and circumstance of Lapierre’s funeral. Each of the firefighters’ families was presented with a U.S. flag – folded and carefully prepared during a separate ceremony – in a fine-tuned procession, and Malcolm carried No. 91 – for Lapierre.
“I felt it a big honor,” he said.
Chief Baker felt similarly honored when Lapierre’s family chose him to receive it.
“I asked [Lapierre’s] sisters, ‘Are you sure about that? I don’t want to take a spot from one of the family members to go up there,’” he recalled. “They were like, ‘Nope. We want you to go up.’”
So he did, alongside Lapierre’s mother and daughter, accepting the flag and a single long-stemmed red rose. Later, those flowers would be lain across the monument outside.
The night before, a candlelight vigil saw visitors light luminaries for each fallen firefighter, whose names were projected on a large screen.
The elder Baker’s phone vibrated then: It was a notification of a 911 call for mutual aid into Highgate, where a barn caught fire on Route 7. High winds were impeding containment efforts, and responders needed more manpower and equipment.
He looked up from his phone screen to the big screen. There, the next name flashed: Steven L. Lapierre.
Father and son shared in their next sentiment, saying: “I hope they take Tanker 2 to that call.”