Eric Hill — a life spent saving others

Remembering longtime firefighter and dearly loved family man who lost his life in CDOT accident

Eric Hill lost his life while at work with a Colorado Department of Transportation maintenance crew.
Special to the Daily

Eric Hill Memorial

Memorial contributions can be made to the Eric Hill Memorial Fund at Wells Fargo Bank or at the GoFundMe page established in his memory.

A candlelight vigil is planned Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Eagle Valley High School. The vigil will be held at the football field, weather permitting, or in the school gymnasium. Community members will be welcome to share their stories at the event

The memorial service for Eric Hill will be held at the Eagle River Center at the Eagle County Fairgrounds on Saturday at 11 a.m. A memorial procession, featuring EMS agencies and representatives from the Colorado Department of Transportation, will escort the Hill family from the CDOT facility on the east side of Gypsum to the service site. The Colorado State Patrol and CDOT urge the public to use caution when the memorial motorcades pass, especially if members of the public wish to pay their respects outside of their vehicles or places of business.

GYPSUM — Eric Hill spent his life saving people as a longtime local firefighter, a member of the U.S. Air Force and a devoted family man.

But irony can be astoundingly cruel. While his final moments were spent surrounded by his comrades from the Gypsum Fire Department, he wasn’t among their number. Instead, Eric’s fellow firefighters were responding to the scene of the accident that claimed his life on March 16.

“He was able to save so many people, but they couldn’t save him,” Hill’s wife, Cissy, said.

Eric’s loved ones — and there are scads of them, including family, friends and colleagues —  are struggling mightily in the aftermath of the tragic accident that took his life. Cissy knows Eric was a stickler for safety, especially during his years with the in Eagle and Gypsum fire departments.

“His co-workers would get irritated with him sometimes because he always wanted them to be safe,” said daughter Kasie Hill.

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“The main purpose, in his mind, was to teach and educate and make people better,” said Brad Jones, one of his longtime colleagues and friends. “He knew it was dangerous work so he wanted people to double check to make sure to do things right. His end game was always to keep people from doing something wrong.”

When his father, Rick Hill, claimed the lunch box Eric had brought to work last Saturday, as a member of a Colorado Department of Transportation maintenance team, he found the state’s laminated safety card inside.

Sometimes there just aren’t answers. This is one of those times.

The one and only

Rick and Cathy Hill welcomed Eric to the world on Feb. 29, 51 years ago. His leap year birthday was a harbinger of the unique individual he would become. The Hills moved from California when Eric was 4 and because he was a leap year baby, he celebrated his first real birthday as a Coloradan. Rick said both his boys spent their childhood running and riding in the mountains.

Eric attended local schools and graduated with the Eagle Valley High School Class of 1986. Along the way, he earned the nickname “Hillbilly” and his younger brother Jeff said the statute of limitations has expired on some of their more memorable antics. While her son was generally stealthy in his teenage exploits, Cathy vividly recalled one particular adventure.

“He put our Suburban in the river to haul out a dead horse for some kids with the FFA,” she said. “That was right after he got his license.”

After graduation, Eric went to work for Beaver Creek for a couple of years, which gave him the opportunity to spend lots of time on the hill.

“He was an extremely fast skier,” said Rick. “Eric liked to push the envelope.”

Eric hoped his work at Beaver Creek could lead to a position with the resort fire department but after a couple of years, he decided to try a different strategy and he enlisted in the Air Force.

“He wanted to go into the Air Force and do firefighting. He wanted to go to the Beaver Creek fire department. He was fire department all the way,” said Rick. “That’s dedication to your job.”

However, once he enlisted, the Air Force assigned Eric to an armored detail. He served for six years and was stationed in England for much of that time, which coincided with Operation Desert Storm. When the military action broke out, Eric sought assignment as a parajumper or a helicopter nose gunner. His eyesight prevented him from getting those jobs, so he worked armoring A-10 planes with the bombs they would take to the war zone.

Cissy recalled a story Eric told from his service days about the time a bomb dropped from a plane while the craft was still in the hangar. Everyone ran for cover, that is everyone except Eric.

“He told them ‘Why are you running? If it was a live bomb, we would all be dead now,” she said.

Eric was willing to join the fighting troops in Iraq, but when he learned that would involve a four-year enlistment, he opted to leave military service. Following his honorable discharge, he settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He went to work for an air conditioning company and one of his co-workers — his future wife Cissy — caught his eye. The couple would have celebrated their 25th annivesary this May.

After a couple of years in Albuquerque, Eric decided it was time to come home to the Eagle Valley. For a while, Eric worked at the post office in Eagle and for Premier Electric. He also made a move that would define his professional life — he signed up as a volunteer for the Gypsum Fire Department. After a few months, he decided to volunteer in Eagle as well.

“Eric was happily volunteering at both fire departments for awhile,” Jones said. “But that was Eric for you.”

Cissy said a couple of years after he started as a volunteer, Eric was hired by the Eagle department. Later he also took a paying gig at Gypsum and for many years his weekly work schedule had him working two full shifts at Eagle and one at Gypsum. At one point he was also on the Eagle County Airport Fire Rescue squad.

“He just wanted to help people. He just wanted to be in the thick of it,” Cissy said.

“He would be the first one out the door or out of the truck moving toward what was going on,” said Jones. “He would do the high risk job first, before he would want to put people in a bad place.”

Eric was also dedicated to learning all he could and sharing what he knew.

“He took every option they offered — ropes, climbing, water rescue,” his dad said.

Eric was also a certified wildland firefighter. “The wildland firefighting was the worst part. He would be gone for 14 days straight,” Cissy said. His wildland duties took him to California, Washington, Oregon and all over Colorado.

“He said the Oregon fires were different from anthing else because the fire was at the top of the trees and they would be standing on the ground and the fire would go right over the top of them,” Rick said.

Eric never knew where wildland firefighting would take him. One time, his son Tyler was walking through a city park in Fort Collins during wildfire season when he saw it was being used as a staging area for crews from around the state. He surveyed the scene and spotted the Eagle fire truck.

“I didn’t even know he was there,” said Tyler, but Eric was pleasantly surprised when his son dropped by to greet the crew.

Highs and Lows

Eric had countless firefighting stories to tell.

“There were just so many, it is hard to remember them,” said Cissy. “There are some great stories and some super sad stories.”

One of Eric’s favorite tales revolved around a backcountry rescue of Pete Nolan, the longtime athletic director at Eagle Valley High School. Pete had been hunting in a remote location when he broke his hip. Eric wasn’t on duty at the time, but when he heard the call go out about an injured hunter who needed to be evacuated, he figured the crew might have a hard time locating the hunting camp.

“No one knew how to get up there, but Eric knew exactly where it was,” said Cissy. “Eric rode in with the ambulance crew, told them how to get to where a staging area should be and then got on the four-wheeler and told the EMTs exactly how to get to the location. When he got there, he found out it was Pete Nolan.”

“It was in the middle of a storm and the EMT in charge wanted to camp and ride out the storm,” Cissy continued. “Pete begged Eric not to let that happen. Pete wanted to get out and go home, not to the hospital, but home. Eric let him know it would be very painful, but he would bring him down.”

Cissy said Eric and the EMT got into a heated argument about that promise, but eventually the crew brought Pete out through the storm and took him to the hospital.

“Pete was so thankful to Eric. He told Eric if it wasn’t for him he may not have made it,” Cissy said.

Not all of Eric’s firefighting or rescue stories had such a happy ending. There was a time when he had to crawl into a van on I-70 to search for survivors. The vehicle was carrying the members of a mariachi band and their children when it was involved in a lethal accident.

One of Eric’s worst days on the job was when he responded to a call involving the 2-year-old son of a high school friend. Eric’s own son, Brodie, was 2 at the time.

“The job of firefighting around the Eagle Valley was hard on him because he grew up here and knew the people,” Rick said.

I can’t imagine the emotional toll it took on him,” Cathy said. “But he was our rock. He was so steady and so present for everybody.”

Devastating loss

Cissy always told Eric’s fellow firefighters that she expected them to bring her husband home safely at the end of a shift. For more than 16 years, they were able to do that. He retired as a full-time firefighter last year, but he still worked part-time in Gypsum along with his new job with CDOT.

“Something that I always respected about Eric was he was a natural leader, by example,” said Gypsum Fire Chief Justin Kirkland. “Because he was so motivated and dedicated, everyone always wanted to be on his shift.”

Because of the life-and-death nature of the work, Kirkland said firefighting isn’t just a job. It is a family. Cissy agreed.

“In all reality. Firefighting was his first wife. I was his second,” she said. But she stressed Eric was also a dedicated family man who loved his children and his grandchildren.

“He was always chasing one of his three kids around somewhere, as long as I knew him,” Jones said.

Eric’s fire department family ties were very tight, as evidenced last Saturday. Eric’s CDOT co-workers were already attempting to revive him when the four-man Gypsum Fire crew arrived.

“To see him in a situation where we felt it was hopeless was just devastating to all of us,” Kirkland said. “You spend decades saving other people and then you can’t save one of your own. That is just something no one should have to deal with.”

After they left the scene of the accident, members of the fire crew knew they had to perform another difficult job last Saturday.

“The duty crew from the call told Cissy about the accident. It was his fire department family who informed his family,” Kirkland said.

Eric’s fire department family has also mobilized to organize logistics for his memorial service on Saturday, bringing food for his family and even helping mark Brodie’s 10th birthday. Eric’s son turned 10 yesterday.

“People want to know what they can do,” Cissy said. “Can anyone perform a miracle?”

As they grapple with their fierce grief, Cissy urged members of the community to treasure their own loved ones every day. She hopes that Eric’s life of service is his community legacy.

“I would like people to remember how happy he was,” Cissy said. “Not only was he an amazing firefighter but he was a loving husband and father and a wonderful son and brother. He was well loved.”

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