Community mourns loss of two Toledo firefightersWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | email@example.com
Pvt. Stephen Machcinski and Pvt. James Dickman loved the job that cost them their lives.
That fact, repeated by nearly everyone who knew them, is giving their families, friends and vast community of fellow firefighters a small measure of solace as they grapple with the loss of two of their own.
Dickman, 31, who went by Jamie, was bubbly and quick to smile with everyone he met, while Machcinski, 42, who went by Steve, seemed quiet and reserved — until he found his comfort zone. Dickman was married with two young children, including a son born on Christmas Eve; Machcinski was a lifelong bachelor, whose brother is also a firefighter. Machcinski had served with Toledo Fire Department (TFD) for 15 years, Dickman for only five months. But while Dickman was new to Toledo, he was not new to firefighting. It had been his career for the past 10 years in Perkins Township.
The two men died Jan. 26 at Mercy St. Vincent Hospital from injuries sustained while fighting a two-story, six-unit apartment building blaze at 528 Magnolia St. in North Toledo. “Rapidly deteriorating conditions” led to the deaths, said TFD Chief Luis Santiago, but the cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Not long after firefighters arrived on scene, a mayday was called. “Get out of the structure. Let’s take a defensive approach,” a commander can be heard saying on an audio recording of radio chatter. A short time later: “Do you have the firefighters with you?” The response: “Negative. They are missing.” Minutes later, another exchange, asking if everyone is accounted for. “I have no accountability on two members from Engine 3,” came the reply.
Santiago said he arrived on scene as one of the men was being pulled from the structure by fellow firefighters; the other was pulled out shortly after.
“We’re all trained to maintain our professionalism and our composure in things like this. As far as the folks on scene, they did a spectacular job along those lines,” Santiago said. “But the gravity of all this, it’s going to take some days.”
Lt. Daniel Brown-Martinez of Engine 11 was off Jan. 26, but a fellow firefighter called to ask if he’d heard about trouble on scene at the Magnolia Street fire. It wasn’t hearing that a mayday had been called that sent a chill through Brown-Martinez; it was the mayday combined with the word “missing.”
“A mayday is an emergency call: ‘I’m in a bad situation; I need help,’” said Brown-Martinez, a 13-year veteran of TFD. “It’s actually not uncommon to hear them, but our guys are damn good and trained very well. They go in, they execute it and they are able to rescue our own. I knew it was bad when they said two firefighters were missing.”
The first thing that comes to mind in such a situation is air supply, Brown-Martinez said.
“The first thing you think about is time,” he said. “You want to know how much time has passed since they were last seen, when they engaged in tactics and where they are now. So when I heard they were missing and then I heard the times from when they were missing, I knew it was going to be bad.”
Santiago declined to comment on the specific conditions at the structure, how long the two firefighters were inside or where they were found, citing the ongoing investigation.
“There [were] transmissions that there was trouble because of rapidly deteriorating conditions and we had crews that were ready to go for just such an emergency and they were put into action and put into service and they accomplished what they were there to accomplish,” Santiago said at a news conference Jan. 27.
In an emergency situation, trained first responders enter what’s known as a sympathetic nervous response, Brown-Martinez said.
“Your adrenaline gets going and you get cocked and locked and you’re ready to effect whatever type of tactic or mission you have to do,” he said.
Because of that, the grief and pain of a tragedy sometimes doesn’t fully hit a firefighter until much later, he said.
“It doesn’t happen until the event has closed and you actually have a chance to come down from that baseline and regain your composure and actually absorb anything that did happen, anything that could have happened. Did you do everything right? Did some things happen that were wrong?” Brown-Martinez said.
“You start to really think, ‘Damn, I lost two of my friends, two of my co-workers, two familiar faces. Could this happen again? Could it happen to another loved one that I have? Could this happen to me? What’s going to happen to my family when I’m gone?’ It really brings everything back down, brings you back down to Earth.”
Autopsy results released Jan. 28 showed both Machcinski and Dickman died of thermal burns and exposure to carbon monoxide. The full coroner’s report, including the toxicology report, is expected in a few weeks, Santiago said.
Santiago declined to comment on whether the fire is suspected to be accidental or arson.
“There is so much investigation to still take place that the cause, we are very far from right now,” he said.
Among the agencies assisting the investigation are Toledo Police, the state fire marshal, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, FBI and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Santiago said the firefighters who were at the scene that day will also be interviewed more thoroughly in coming days. The department had been giving them space to grieve before questioning them.
“It’s been a delicate balance because they are hurting. We’re all hurting,” Santiago said.
The two men are the 48th and 49th Toledo firefighters to die in the line of duty in TFD’s 177-year history, Santiago said.
Toledo lost two dedicated public servants, said Mayor D. Michael Collins, a retired Toledo police officer.
“The average person would run in the opposite direction than they do, but that is their profession and that is basically what they take in their oath of office to do,” Collins said. “We will get through this, but it’s not going to be a very easy situation and the holes in the hearts will not be fixed with any simple solutions.”
Perkins Township Fire Department Chief Keith Wohlever said Dickman’s goal from the time he joined the Perkins department as a part-timer in 2003 was to be a member of a larger city’s fire department — a dream he realized in September when he joined TFD.
“He was a bubbly person,” Wohlever said. “He came to work every day with a smile on his face, happy to be here. He was always eager to do the job and looked forward to it. He loved the job, loved the profession. It was his calling and he did a great job at it. Everybody here is still trying to process everything and talk about it and rationalize it.”
Dickman was already making his mark in Toledo. Representatives from both departments recalled him as someone who was always trying to better himself.
“He was one of those people who was always striving for knowledge, always on the Internet, always reading, always trying to make himself a better person and a better firefighter,” Wohlever said.
Dickman was “the epitome of a fireman’s fireman,” said Brown-Martinez.
“He did all the training and everything on his own time to get here,” he said. “His mom spoke to us at the hospital. She said it was his dream job and he felt guilty, that he wished everyone went to work feeling the way he did going to work.”
“He absolutely loved what he did. This was his dream job, and I heard it more than once,” Santiago echoed during a news conference Jan. 27. “His true love and his true desire was to work for the Toledo Fire & Rescue Department and he was so impressed, he was so happy, with the structure it provided and the type of work it did, with the frequency that we do it. He was just so very excited to be doing what he was doing.”
‘My best friend’
Pvt. Keith Szenderski of Engine 3 was off Jan. 26 when a friend called to let him know two firefighters had been hurt on the scene of a fire.
“I don’t know who’s hurt or who’s in harm’s way. We have a bunch of new rookies. I don’t know if it’s one of them. I don’t know if it’s my best friend. I don’t know. Then I find out it’s my best friend,” Szenderski said, his voice cracking.
Szenderski and Machcinski met 15 years ago as members of the same TFD class and worked together at two different stations. They were pretty much inseparable, both on and off the job.
Whenever they worked together, they’d walk across the street to a gas station and blow a few bucks on scratch-off lottery tickets, never winning much of anything. After their shifts, they often hung out at Nick & Jimmy’s, sipping beers and talking sports. The week before Machcinski died, they gathered there with their classmates for a 15th class reunion.
One of their yearly traditions was going to the Mud Hens’ Opening Day game together. Sometimes Machcinski would bring a date; sometimes it was just the three of them: Machcinski , Szenderski and Szenderski’s wife. But they always went. Every year.
Except this year, Szenderski didn’t ask Machcinski about tickets. He just bought his own.
“This year I ordered tickets and didn’t call him. Which is odd because I always call him and ask if he wants some tickets. For the first time ever, I just ordered my tickets. And then Sunday …” Szenderski said, trailing off. “I don’t know why I didn’t call him. There’s no reason. I don’t know.”
Jan. 29 was the first shift back to work for many of the firefighters who responded to the Magnolia Street fire alongside Machcinski and Dickman. At Station 13 in East Toledo, where both men were based with Engine 3, the mood was subdued and somber.
“It’s surreal to be back here without him,” said Pvt. Keith Falls of Engine 13, a 25-year TFD veteran.
Falls smiled as he remembered how Machcinski used to tease him about his eating habits, scolding him from across the room whenever he heard him open a bag of chips.
“He was kind of a quiet guy I suppose, if you didn’t know him,” Falls said. “He would find a chair and watch the tube by himself. But personality-wise, he was a good one-of-the-guys type person. On this job you’ve got to be able to handle the kidding around or you don’t make it.”
Machcinski, a 1989 Whitmer High School graduate, later earned a degree in fire science from Owens Community College. He never married and had no children, but among the family he leaves to mourn is his older brother, Richard, a firefighter with the Fort Wayne Fire Department in Indiana.
It’s clear the Machcinski family is service-oriented, said Stacey Fleming, public information officer for the Fort Wayne department.
“Considering both are firefighters, obviously it’s in their blood,” she said.
Machcinski’s family has asked that donations be made to Dickman’s family instead.
“I can tell you that it’s easy to see the makeup of firefighter Machcinski and the work that he did and where it came from,” Santiago said of the family’s gesture. “That’s amazing. They understand that Steve, single, might not have the same challenges after his passing that the Dickman family has, so that’s very humbling even as someone on the periphery sees that. It pulls at your heart.”
Molly Dugan’s father Thomas Dugan worked with Machcinski at Station 13. Her father, a former president of Toledo Firefighters Local 92, died of cancer just months before her son, Tommy, was born.
“Probably the worst thing about losing my dad was that he just missed meeting his first grandchild by a few short months,” Dugan said. “My son got cheated big time. I wanted him to know all about his Papa. One way was by introducing him to my dad’s other family, the TFD.”
Machcinski always welcomed Molly and Tommy when they visited the station.
“He’d let Tommy explore and play with the equipment, even taking down the hose and turning it on for a very excited little boy to spray,” Dugan said. “At the end of our time we’d get to climb into the big, shiny rig and play with the lights and sirens before being taken on our own personal tour throughout the neighborhood. He not only made this little boy’s day, but mine as well. Steve was one of the kindest, sweetest souls I ever had the pleasure of knowing. I feel lucky to have been his friend.”
Santiago said Machcinski was “a great firefighter” and “a great member of our department.”
“They are both going to be a great, great loss to us,” Santiago said.
Life was starting to fall into place for Dickman. He and his wife, also named Jamie, celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary this fall and had recently moved to Perrysburg. They have a 3-year-old daughter Paige and a newborn son, Grant James, born Christmas Eve.
The whole family is religious and one of the last moments they had together was a family prayer, according to John Adams, the pastor who married them in Sandusky.
“He kissed them all [good] night and got up to go to work on Sunday,” Adams said.
Dickman attended New Life Church for 10 years, Adams said.
“The first time I saw Jamie he came to an outdoor youth event,” Adams said. “At that time in his life, he really needed direction.”
More recently, Jamie was attending services and performing with the worship team at The Chapel in Sandusky before moving to the Toledo area.
It was at New Life that Dickman met Jamie Young, whose father Ray Young worked (and still does) for the Sandusky church as a staff pastor.
“I married them,” Adams said. “That was a funny thing. They are both Jamies spelled the same way. We called them ‘Jamie Boy’ and ‘Jamie Girl.’”
The pastor was shocked when he got the news that Jamie Boy had died.
“I received the call from his mother-in-law and she had just received the news and was on the way to Toledo,” Adams said. “That is one of the things that hits you like a truck. The first thing is disbelief. Then shock and then you don’t know how to respond.”
Adams works as a chaplain for law enforcement and emergency responders in the Sandusky area. He understands the stress that the families of these workers go through. But nothing prepares you for the news that a firefighter you know has perished.
“It is a high-risk career, but it serves people,” Adams said. “The stress that they go through, it is very difficult.”
Adams said faith can help, but it isn’t something that might be immediately comforting.
“Our faith doesn’t remove our pain, but if it is greater, you can get through it,” Adams said.
Julie Torrence has been with her sister, Jamie, since getting the news Jan. 26.
“It doesn’t feel real yet. It will take time to process,” Torrence said. “Maybe when we get through this week and we are left in the quiet with our thoughts and memories, then I think we will really be able to grieve. We will start to think about what life will be without him.”
Jamie has been a stay-at-home mom for the past year since taking a hiatus from teaching to be with her children. It is too early to say what she will do now that Jamie Boy is gone, Torrence said.
Dickman grew up in Sandusky and his wife grew up in Gibsonburg.
Jamie Girl’s dad was an educator in the Toledo area and then became a principal in Sandusky. Her family, especially her older brother, hung out with Dickman.
Jamie Boy attended Perkins High School and was also home-schooled. He graduated in 2000 and then attended EHOVE Fire Academy.
He was ambitious. While many firefighters make a career out of working at Perkins Township Fire Department, Dickman wanted to work in a bigger city. Perkins is a township of about 12,000 residents.
“He worked at Perkins because that is where he grew up; he had family members who had served with Perkins,” Torrence said. “He wanted to be in a bigger town and fighting bigger fires and setting bigger goals. He loved to fight fires. That made him feel like he could use all of his skills.
“Jamie was telling me that when they drove over the Veterans Glass City Skyway, Jamie Boy would say, ‘This is my city and these are my people.’
“This was a fresh start for them and everything was so exciting for them,” she said. “He instantly bonded with all the people in his class and his chief. He felt so excited to be here.”
Dickman wrote the motto adopted by his 2013 fire class, whose graduation ceremony will be held Feb. 7 without him: “We fight with courage. We stand with pride. We honor those who gave their lives.”
The family has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and efforts to raise money for Dickman’s family, even possibly to pay for his children’s college educations.
“It has been amazing. It has left us all speechless and so full of gratitude,” Torrence said. “We are blown away by the amount of people who care and are sending their kind thoughts.”
Others who knew Dickman remembered him for his musical side. Rob Stein of Sandusky played with him in an alternative Christian rock band called Remembering Venice. The band, which has since disbanded, toured regionally and even opened for national acts like Skillet.
“Jamie came to us and knew we needed a bass player and he stepped up,” Stein said. He stayed four years.
Stein said Dickman loved firefighting, but would have loved to do music full time as a ministry.
“Jamie was all about music,” Stein said. “Even after he had left the band, he would do DJ stuff. He was all about crazy fun beats.”
Dickman was known for keeping the peace.
“If someone in the band was arguing or fighting, he would try to lighten the situation,” Stein said.
His musical influences were Led Zeppelin and Korn and he would sometimes put on black eyeliner when the band performed.
“He was the crazy guy of the bunch,” Stein said. “He would be totally separate from us and he would be going totally crazy.
“About 80 percent of the stuff on our album was influenced by Jamie,” he added. “A lot of the screaming and the heaviness of the songs is all Jamie.”
Stein said hearing about Dickman’s death left him numb.
“I was completely in utter shock, questioning, ‘Is this really life? Is this really happening?’ Stein said. “It didn’t hit me until a couple hours after.”
To help make sure Dickman’s family is cared for, Stein said Remembering Venice plans to reunite and put on a concert in Sandusky on March 14. The doors will open at 6 p.m. with tickets $10 per person. Lead singer Mel Burns is even coming up from Georgia for this one-time performance.
The band’s album, “The Beauty of Broken Things” can be downloaded on iTunes — a great way for his kids to hear their dad someday, Stein said.
Former Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, a retired TFD chief and state fire marshal, said the death of a firefighter is “the most devastating thing that can happen to a department.”
“It can take years to actually recover, where people start to feel OK,” Bell said. “The community of those who put their lives on the lines at a moment’s notice is very tightknit. When you lose somebody, it’s extremely devastating. They are all good guys and gals. The fact that they are prepared to do some good for people who they don’t even know, I think says a lot about them.”
Toledo Firefighters Museum Board President Robert Schwanzl, a retired TFD assistant chief and 40-year veteran of the department, was among the firefighters who responded to the 1961 Anthony Wayne Trail tanker fire that killed four firefighters. He said any fatal fire is an emotional experience, particularly when a child is killed. When it’s a fellow firefighter who dies, the hurt is compounded even further.
“When a fellow firefighter dies — you can’t describe the feeling people go through,” Schwanzl said. “It’s very disturbing. It’s upsetting. There are lots of questions.”
Return to work
A black cloth hangs over the frame of the Station 13 garage door through which Engine 3 left on a call, carrying two firefighters who would not return.
It was placed there by a fellow TFD firefighter three days after fire claimed the lives of Machcinski and Dickman.
Many firefighters find returning to work therapeutic, Santiago said.
“For some, it’s therapy; for some, it’s a way to get through this because knowing the two firefighters that we know, that we’ve lost, they wouldn’t want it any different,” Santiago said. “It might seem weird, but it is a bit therapeutic for us to just continue to do our job and continue to serve in the spirit they did.”
Collins said he’s ever mindful of the sacrifices of public servants and experienced “another one of those emotional ambushes” when he passed two TFD rigs on his way to work Jan. 28.
“I just had to stop and think for a second. They are doing exactly what brought the tragedies,” Collins said during a news conference that evening. “They are not doing it for reward and they are not doing it for prestige; they are doing it because that’s what they do and that is what their heart is all about. They are out there today giving that same measure of energy and giving that same measure of challenge and taking that same … risk that unfortunately brings us together this afternoon. I’m very mindful of that.”
‘We’re a family’
Firefighters are “a band of brothers and sisters,” Santiago said.
“We make ourselves available to each other and we’re there to help each other,” he said. “We’re a family, we’re a team.”
Santiago said he’s heard from fire chiefs all over the country, including the Prescott, Ariz., department that lost 19 firefighters to a June wildfire.
“There are a lot of people reaching out,” Santiago said. “From coast to coast. From Canada. From all over the place.”
A firefighters’ Mass was held Jan. 29 at the Historic Church of St. Patrick in Downtown Toledo. Another Mass is scheduled for Feb. 2.
Thousands of firefighters from across the country plus local, state and federal dignitaries planned to attend the “last alarm” memorial ceremony Jan. 30 at SeaGate Convention Centre in Downtown Toledo.
Santiago said the event will be humbling and “will help tremendously” in lifting up firefighters who have been struggling to process the loss.
“A lot of our own members haven’t seen things like this, so it will be a great help to a lot of us that are feeling the pain,” Santiago said. “We’ll be embracing and welcoming that support.”
Toledo Police Chief Lt. William Moton and his officers are also rallying around TFD.
“We work hand-in-hand with members of TFD and when tragedy strikes it affects us as well,” Moton said in a statement. “Even though there is plenty of good-natured ribbing between us, the safety forces in our city stand as one and we feel their pain and sorrow.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich ordered flags be lowered to half-mast on all Lucas County buildings Jan. 27 as well as in Erie County on Jan. 31, the date of Dickman’s funeral in Sandusky, and in Lucas County on Feb. 1, the date of Machcinski’s funeral. The Ohio Statehouse and fire stations across Ohio plan to fly flags at half-mast Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.
As thousands of people left messages of support via social media and changed their profile photos to a memorial icon, many area residents were prompted to look for more tangible ways to show their support.
Jamie Armstrong of Holland began organizing a potluck via Facebook. By 5 p.m. Jan. 27, meals for all 18 Toledo fire stations were covered.
“I can’t really tell you how appreciative I am of the entire city,” Armstrong said. “[The firefighters] are just absolutely in awe.”
The potluck, originally intended to cover one week, has been extended until Feb. 7. Armstrong said she plans to organize a commemorative potluck on the 26th of each month and also include neighboring community fire stations.
Among those who have signed up to donate food is Dawn Tuite, whose Sylvania Township house was destroyed by a fire in November 2012.
“The community and schools of Sylvania gave and helped so much we were without words,” Tuite said. “It’s only right to give back to others during their time of loss be it from a fire, death or even financial hardships. I love paying it forward and encourage others to follow my lead.”
Brown-Martinez said the community support has been humbling.
“We haven’t had a response like this since 9/11,” he said. “It seems like the community is always calling us for support. Now, without us calling them, they came to our aid. It was just unreal. I’m just so appreciative.”
Among the options for monetary donations are The Dickman Family Memorial Fund through PNC Bank and Toledo Fire and Rescue Foundation via toledofirerescue.com.
Diane Miscannon was 10 years old when her father, TPD Officer William Miscannon, was shot and killed during a riot in 1970. Today she works with Hearts Behind the Badge, a support organization that serves TPD officers and family members in need. In support of TFD, the group is making red ribbons, which it handed out to all TFD stations and will also bring to all area memorial events.
Miscannon said when she heard the news of the two deaths, her first thoughts were of Dickman’s children.
“I feel for the children more than anyone else. They are too young. They don’t understand the whole thing. They can’t make sense of it,” Miscannon said.
Miscannon said her father’s death was difficult to process.
“It was just a big media circus,” she said. “Kids don’t understand the meaning of death and especially when they are 3 years old.”
Miscannon said it’s always a terrible shock when a police officer or firefighter is killed.
“You know that risk is there every day, but realistically you don’t believe it will happen to you or me,” she said. “It just shows the reality that you truly are putting your life on the line.”
For both families, everything will be a blur for a while and they will need time alone to process the loss and grieve, Miscannon said.
As Dickman’s children grow up without their father, she said it will be important to tell them stories.
“Always tell the children stories, always show them pictures,” Miscannon said. “As an adult, even to this day, the first thing I say to someone I meet who knew my father is, ‘Will you tell me a story about him?’ Sometimes I hear the same story over and over again, but I don’t care. It brings me closer to my dad.
“You’ve got to focus on the positive. I know that’s hard to do. But remind the children of their father and what a great hero he was and that he died doing the job he loved,” Miscannon said. “They need to know he died doing what he loved and that he died a hero. They both did.”
Toledo Free Press Community Ombudsman Brandi Barhite and Toledo Free Press Staff Writer Brigitta Burks contributed to this report.
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