Story by Warren Jones, photos provided by the Wilmington Fire Department and John Randolph
On October 1, 2016, the fire service came to Wilmington to pay respects and attend the Memorial Service of two Wilmington firefighters who were killed in the line of duty on September 24, 2016. Thousands of firefighters from across the United States and Canada attended the service. A convoy of fire apparatus from Sussex County and Kent County, made their way north to Wilmington to show their respects.
The firefighters who died were Lieutenant Christopher Leach and Senior Firefighter Jerry Fickes, Jr. Lt. Leach was assigned to Engine 6 and Firefighter Fickes was assigned to Squad 4. Like a number of other Wilmington firefighters they started their fire service careers in the New Castle County Volunteer fire companies. Lt. Leach was a member of the Talleyville Fire Company and Firefighter Fickes was a member of the Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company, of Newark.
The service was held at the Chase Center in Wilmington’s Riverfront section. The firefighters were marshaled together in front of Frawley Stadium to receive instructions on where to form up and when to move into the Chase Center. At 1030 they gathered again to receive line-up instructions.
Uniformed firefighters lined up in ranks of twos from the entrance to the Chase Center on Shipyard Drive north to Justinson Street. The sea of blue firefighter uniforms stretched as far as the eye could see waiting for the families to arrive. And then we heard the sound of motorcycles approaching and then the command, “Attention! Present Arms!” Out of the silence came a sea of white handed gloves touching the brims of the firefighter hats, saluting the line of family vehicles and they passed. All of this was reminiscent of 14 years ago when I first heard the words “Sea of Blue,” a poem written and delivered by Bill Manning of Fire Engineering. That day, October 6, 2002, was the NFFF Memorial Service in Washington DC’s, MCI Center. It was the ceremony honoring all the firefighters who died in 2001, including the 343 FDNY members from the World Trade Center.
As the families passed, we moved in formation into the center. The IAFF was running the Memorial Service and the huge Chase Center was filled as we were directed to our seats. The service started at 1300 with the Choir of Saint Joseph’s singing “On Eagles Wings.” Next the IAFF Honor Guard, escorted by hundreds of pipes and drums entered the ballroom, posted the colors and Reverend Brad Martin, WFD Chaplain, offered the opening prayer. The pipes and drums played “Amazing Grace” as they exited.
WFD Captain Christopher Murtha (ret.) was the Master of Ceremonies and the list of speakers was long and distinguished, including the Vice President of the United States Joe Biden, Wilmington Fire Department Chief Anthony Goode, Congressman John Carney, Senator Tom Carper, Senator Chris Coons, Wilmington Firefighters Association President, Bruce Schweiger and IAFF General President, Harold Schaitberger.
Chief Goode presented the families with Medals of Honor and Medals of Individual Valor. He posthumously promoted Lt. Leach to Captain and Firefighter Fickes to Lieutenant. He immediately retired badges C14 and L9, in their honor, and presented the badges to the families as well. Congressman Carney said, “Our whole state is hurting and that their calling showed the human spirit at its best.” He also quoted General Patton when he said that, “Courage is fear held on a minute longer.” Senator Coons quoted John 15:13 “There is no greater gift.” He called Chris and Jerry “Firefighter’s firefighters,” saying they, “were the very best of our country.” Next was Vice President Biden who brought a resounding applause when he said, “All men are created equal but then a few become firefighters.” He then said, “that the single most underappreciated profession in this world was firefighters.” He spoke of the loss of his son Beau and directed those comments to the families. President Schweiger talked about the job that we do in his remarks. The last speaker on the dais was General President Schaitberger who offered remarks and presented the families with the IAFF Medal of Honor.
In the closing part of the service were remarks from the families’ representatives. Speaking on behalf of the Leach family were Lt. Brandon Greg and Lt. Eric Haley. Speaking of behalf of the Fickes Family was Captain Richard “Dickie” Lamb (ret.). The men spoke about their experiences and friendships in the fire stations with Chris and Jerry. Their stories and reflections were very poignant yet at times brought some much-needed smiles and laughter to the room. The service concluded with the traditional bell ceremony, the last alarm, taps and the closing prayer by Father William Cocco, Chaplain of the Wilmington Fire Department.
The fire service world came together today to honor and to reflect on two men who made the ultimate sacrifice doing what they loved. We will always remember their lives as they will always be with us.