Somber day: Memorials, vigil mark one-year anniversary of firefighter deathsWritten by Sarah Ottney | Editor in Chief | firstname.lastname@example.org
The one-year anniversary of the deaths of Toledo firefighters Pvt. Stephen Machcinski and Pvt. James Dickman was marked by a somber public memorial ceremony in the morning, a private Mass in the afternoon and a vigil at the site of the fatal fire that evening.
Toledo Fire & Rescue (TFD) Chief Luis Santiago thanked Machcinski and Dickman for their service during the 9 a.m. public ceremony at One Government Center.
“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, spoke of their service and called 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.”
He also noted the courage required of family members who support service members.
“It not only takes a special person to serve, it also takes a special family to be part of that family known as the safety forces,” Collins said. “That kiss of love as the husband or wife, the child’s mom or dad, the son and the daughter, the brother and the sister, as they walk out the door to answer the challenges that they’ve committed themselves to because of their profession.”
Machinski, 42, and Dickman, 31, died Jan. 26, 2014, from injuries sustained while fighting a North Toledo apartment fire. “Rapidly deteriorating conditions” led to the deaths, Santiago said at the time.
As the anniversary approached, Santiago said the department struggled with what to do.
“We recognized really quickly that 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. In times of crisis like this, numbers help. We felt that all along and we still do.”
During the ceremony, 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.”
Santiago also thanked the Machcinski and Dickman families.
“I want to thank you for letting them be part of our family,” Santiago said. “They were truly brothers in our hearts and they remain brothers in our hearts. Right now there’s a hole in our hearts because of their absence.”
He thanked his department.
“At a time of great adversity, your professional performance was so impressive,” Santiago said. “The public didn’t notice that you ever missed a beat. … I’m very, very proud of you. Steve and Jamie would be as well.”
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, is charged with aggravated arson, aggravated murder and tampering with evidence in relation to the fire. He is scheduled to appear in court Jan. 27.
“I believe with your help you’ve situated us well to hopefully obtain justice when the time comes,” Santiago said.
Last, he thanked Machcinski and Dickman themselves.
“Finally, to Steve and Jamie, I’m not sure we ever did thank you publicly,” Santiago said. “I want to make sure I do now. Your devotion to your calling to be a firefighter for Toledo Fire & Rescue was well noticed. You served with honor, courage and dedication and believe me you will never be forgotten.”
A bell was rung three times for each of the firefighters as part of the traditional bell ceremony.
“It’s been a long year,” said Capt. Jeff Romstadt, president of Local 92. “To all the citizens, the organizations, the businesses, I cannot say thank you enough.”
Among those in attendance was Machcinski’s brother, Rick, a firefighter at Fort Wayne Fire Department. He declined to comment afterward, except to say thank you to the Toledo community for their support.
“It’s tough,” Santiago said afterward, when asked if he’d spoken with the families. “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.”
Among the community members who attended was Sy Kreais, who leads a block watch group in North Toledo near Station No. 3, and he came out to show his support.
“[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 because No. 3 was closed for renovations. It reopened and was rededicated in June, featuring memorial plaques in the kitchen and at the entrance to the garage.
Also there 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.
She held a sign she made that read “We Salute Our Heroes” and wore a shirt with her son’s fire class motto, which Dickman penned: “We fight with courage, we stand with pride, we honor those who gave their lives.”
“It hit so close,” Eck said of the Dickman’s deaths. 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.”
Eck also came to Toledo for the Last Alarm ceremony last January.
“There were 5,000 people and you could hear a pin drop, literally,” Eck said. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
Later, at 3 p.m., a private memorial ceremony for families and fire department personnel was held at Historic St. Patrick’s Church.
The ceremony was expected to consist 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 May Day call from the fire. TFD asked for a moment of silence at that time.
Fire calls don’t stop just because there’s a memorial going on. Half way through the Mass, four firefighters left the church, got into a rig outside and headed to a medical call.
Around 6 p.m., a group of residents organized an evening vigil on Magnolia Street at the site of the fire. The apartment building, at 528 Magnolia St., has since been torn down.
A small group of former apartment residents and neighborhood residents gathered to pray, sing hymns and hold lighted candles.
The vigil was organized by former apartment building resident Tracy Bishop, who lost everything in the fire and now lives with her daughter.
“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 Trinity Faith Tabernacle gave 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.”
Dickman’s sisters, Libby Cheney and Caitlin Dickman, who live near Mansfield, and aunt Gale Dickman, stopped at the vigil, where they thanked attendees and those who organized it.
“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 was raw.
“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.”
The Dickman family is starting a foundation called Live Your Dream Foundation in honor of Dickman, who loved his job.
“We’re working on trying to focus our energy on something more positive,” Cheney said.
TFD Pvt. Dennis Kookoothe, who was driving the Dickman family around Jan. 26, brought Dickman’s sisters to the site 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 was stationed with Machcinski and Dickman, 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. “Out of 500 guys on the job, I was one of the lucky guys who did get to meet Jamie and know him. He loved it. He would come in with a smile from ear to ear every day. It was just a shock [to hear about the deaths].
Kookoothe stopped by the site himself early Jan. 26.”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.”
A Week of Feast
A group called Feed Our Toledo Firefighters organized for meals to be delivered to all the city’s fire stations during the weeks following the fatalities and on the 26th of each month for six months after. During the anniversary week, the group has again stepped up to organize meal deliveries to fire stations, an initiative called A Week of Feast.
“It was really just a continued effort,” said Week of Feast organizer Larry Cready. “As we got near to the one-year anniversary … I suggested we see if we can get them fed on Monday and it just blossomed from there.”
On Jan. 26, 18 fire stations and the 911 dispatch building received delivered meals in this group effort. There are more spaces to be filled for the rest of the week, which can be found on www.perfectpotluck.com. Cready said anyone can do as much or as little as they want to.
“It’s just a collaboration of people who have gotten together,” Cready said. “I may be organizing it and trying to coordinate the effort here, but I couldn’t certainly do this by myself.”
Cready said local firefighters have been humbled by the meal. On this sad day, he said the outpouring support is something they appreciate.
“They don’t ask for anything from us,” Cready said. “They get up every morning and they put their lives on the line for us because that’s they’re job … for us to come together to show them that we’re Toledo Strong [gives] them a pat on the back and [is] showing them some love.”?
Santiago referenced the meals as part of his thank you to the community during the morning memorial service.
“It’s just another gesture of kindness,” Santiago said afterward. “I am ever so grateful to them that they take time out of their day to do that because they don’t have to do that.”
Pvt. Mike Eck, a member of Dickman’s graduating class, said firefighters are appreciative.
“It’s very welcome just for the fact that people are bringing us hot meals,” Eck said. “They care. They want to take care of us. The support is very humbling.”
Toledo Free Press Staff Writer Matt Liasse contributed to this report.