Communities mourn loss of firefighters year laterWritten by Sarah Ottney | Editor in Chief | firstname.lastname@example.org
One year ago Jan. 26, two Toledo firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty.
They may be gone, but they are not forgotten. Fellow firefighters, elected officials and community members made sure the families and friends of Pvt. Stephen Machcinski and Pvt. James Dickman knew that, planning a series of memorials, vigils and meals to mark the anniversary.
Machcinski, 42, and Dickman, 31, died from injuries sustained while fighting a North Toledo apartment fire. “Rapidly deteriorating conditions” inside the burning structure led to the deaths, TFD Chief Luis Santiago said at the time.
Before taking his “dream job” with Toledo Fire & Rescue (TFD) only months before he died, Dickman served for 10 years as a firefighter in Perkins Township near Sandusky.
His Perkins Township fire jacket is now displayed in the department’s memorial case along with a ceremonial Perkins Township helmet and shield and a TFD patch. Above the case is painted the motto Dickman penned for his Toledo fire academy graduating class: “We fight with courage, we stand with pride, we honor those who gave their lives.”
The department there held a small, informal memorial ceremony Jan. 26.
Among those in attendance were Dickman’s widow, parents, sisters and other family members as well as members of his Toledo academy class, a Toledo fire instructor and community members, said Perkins Township Assistant Chief David Murphy.
“It was most definitely a hard day. Everyone was in a somber mood that day,” Murphy said “Everyone just kind of gathered to remember Firefighter Dickman and pay respects to him and Firefighter Machcinski. We wanted to give everybody the opportunity to express their feelings and also show support for the families and let them know we’re still here for them.”
By all accounts, Dickman was a jokester, so some of the stories did lighten the mood, Murphy said.
“A couple of the guys told some funny stories,” he said. “It was a sad time, but we wanted to remember the good things Jamie brought us, too. He was a character, to put it lightly.”
‘Never be forgotten’
In Toledo, the day started with a public ceremony at One Government Center, at which Santiago thanked both men for their service.
“You served with honor, courage and dedication and, believe me, you will never be forgotten,” he said.
Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins, a retired police officer, also spoke, calling them heroes.
To do what firefighters and police officers do — run toward danger rather than away — requires a specific quality of courage and honor that not everyone has, he said.
“To this day our community still mourns the loss of these two fine men who without doubt deserve the title of heroes,” Collins said. “We will not mourn, grieve or heal alone. We will do so as a family.”
Santiago thanked the Machcinski and Dickman families for “letting them be part of our family.”
“They were truly brothers in our hearts and they remain brothers in our hearts,” he said. “Right now there’s a hole in our hearts because of their absence.”
Among those in attendance was Machcinski’s brother, Rick, a firefighter at Fort Wayne Fire Department in Indiana. He declined to comment afterward, except to say thank you to the Toledo community for their support.
“It’s tough,” Santiago said afterward. “I wish it wasn’t under these circumstances, but I’ve developed relationships with two extraordinary families that have gone through this with grace and dignity.”
Santiago thanked the public for their “kind words, hot meals and donations to our foundation.”
“You reached out to us so many ways,” he said. “I can’t thank you enough.
“The public has been a big supporter of ours not only the day of and the week after, but throughout the year so it was important for our department to acknowledge their support and thank them,” Santiago said after the ceremony. “I think to a large degree they felt our pain, they felt our loss,” he said. “In times of crisis like this, numbers help. We felt that all along and we still do.”
Santiago also thanked the Toledo Police Department for its “vigorous assistance in the investigation of this fire.”
The owner of the apartment building, Ray Abou Arab, 62, of Oregon is charged with aggravated arson, aggravated murder and tampering with evidence in relation to the fire. He most recently appeared in court Jan. 27, but a trial date has not been set.
“I believe with your help you’ve situated us well to hopefully obtain justice when the time comes,” Santiago said.
A bell was rung three times for each of the firefighters and a tribute video was played before the ceremony concluded.
“It’s been a long year,” said Capt. Jeff Romstadt, president of Toledo Firefighters Local 92. “To all the citizens, the organizations, the businesses, I cannot say thank you enough.”
Sy Kreais, who leads a block watch group in North Toledo near Fire Station No. 3, was among the community members who came to the memorial.
“[Toledo has] the greatest and best firefighters, not only just at my station, but the whole city,” Kreais said. “I call it my station because it’s my neighborhood. I’ve lived there for almost 60 years.”
Machcinski and Dickman were stationed at No. 3, although at the time of the fire they were operating out of No. 13 on the East Side because No. 3 was closed for renovations. It reopened and was rededicated in June, and features memorial plaques in the kitchen and at the entrance to the garage.
Also at the ceremony was Michelle Eck, whose son Pvt. Mike Eck is a firefighter and member of Dickman’s graduating class. Eck, who lives near Cleveland, took the day off work to come to Toledo for the memorials.
She held a sign she made that read “We Salute Our Heroes” and wore a shirt with the class motto Dickman penned.
“It hit so close,” Eck said of Dickman’s death. He and her son were similar in age and both had young children. “When I saw those pictures [today], I started crying. I brag back home how wonderful the city of Toledo responded. It was really nice to see the whole city respond.”
Later that afternoon, a private memorial ceremony for families and fire department personnel was held at Toledo’s Historic Church of St. Patrick.
The ceremony consisted of several readings from TFD chaplains, several family members speaking, a video tribute and “a quiet ending,” said TFD Public Information Officer Lt. Matthew Hertzfeld. Media was not permitted inside the church.
Hertzfeld said the ceremony is part of the healing process, a step on the journey to a “new normal.”
“It’s a very, very sad day. It brings back some very painful memories for a lot of folks,” Hertzfeld said. “When you suffer a tragedy to the depths that we did, I think it makes that healing process take so much more time. There’s so many things that keep it going, that keep those wounds open. It’s our hope that today is the start of the healing process for all of us, especially the families.”
A Toledo Police helicopter flew over the church and three bells tolled just before 3:03 p.m., the time of the first Mayday call from the fire. TFD asked the community for a moment of silence at that time.
Of course, service calls don’t stop just because there’s a memorial going on. Halfway through the ceremony, four firefighters left the church and got into a rig parked outside to respond to a medical call.
That evening, a small group of former residents of the burnedapartment joined other neighborhood residents to pray, sing hymns and hold lighted candles at the site of the fire. The apartment building at 528 Magnolia St. has since been torn down.
The vigil was organized by former resident Tracy Bishop, who said she lost everything in the fire.
“I just wanted to honor our fallen firefighters who lost their lives that day,” Bishop said. “It’s pretty emotional. I’m just looking for a little closure. I just want the firemen and their families to know that they’ll never be forgotten.”
Pastor Patricia Smith of nearby Trinity Faith Tabernacle offered a prayer at the vigil.
“It’s tragic but yet bittersweet that men stood in the gap to give their lives,” Smith said afterward. “A lot of families were affected — those that lost everything they had and those that lost their family. We’re praying for them. God will strengthen them as they go through this hard time. It’s a hard time when you lose somebody and when you lose all that you have. You need the strength of the Lord.”
“It’s nice to meet people from the community and the people that they helped,” Cheney said. “It’s nice to be around people he was around his last few days. Everyone’s lives are busy so for them to take time out of their day to come and pay respects and not forget is very touching.”
Cheney said she visited the site once before, in the spring, before the building was razed. She was numb then, she said; this time she felt different.
“The emotions are more raw this year, because even though you don’t want to face reality that this has happened, you can’t shut yourself out all of the time,” she said. “This just makes it more real, unfortunately.”
Live Your Dream
The Dickman family recently started a nonprofit called the Live Your Dream Foundation in honor of Dickman. The foundation will provide scholarships to aspiring firefighters, paramedics, EMTs and others as well as help cover the needs of on-duty firefighters, Cheney said.
“We’re working on trying to focus our energy on something more positive,” Cheney said.
To donate, visit the GoFundMe site at gofundme.com/kq08dc or any Huntington Bank. For more information, visit the group’s Facebook page at “Live Your Dream Foundation.”
TFD Pvt. Dennis Kookoothe brought the Dickman family members to the Jan. 26 vigil at their request.
“It’s fantastic,” Kookoothe said of the vigil. “These people lost everything they had and they are still here. It affected so many people.”
Kookoothe is assigned to the same station as Machcinski and Dickman were but worked a different shift so he was off the night of the fire.
“I knew Stephen and I got to meet Jamie,” Kookoothe said. “I was one of the lucky guys who did get to meet Jamie and know him.
“He loved [his job]. He would come in with a smile from ear to ear every day. It was just a shock [to hear about the deaths].”
Kookoothe said he stopped by Magnolia Street himself early that morning.
“It’s hard. There’s nothing easy about it,” he said of the anniversary.
Bishop said she hopes to organize a vigil every year.
“It just makes me grateful for them to continue to honor Jamie and Steve,” Cheney said. “It’s something tremendous. It’s an honor.”