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Vail Daily column: A special goodbye

Mark Miller
Behind the Badge

Her name was Amber. She was in her 30s, engaging and pretty, with a beautiful smile. She called the fire station a couple of months ago with an unusual, but compelling request. You see, Amber’s husband was a firefighter, and he died in the line of duty in Shawnee, Kansas.

It was a tragic event, and one that we, as firefighters, accept as part of the job. Her husband, John, was savvy, energetic, creative and only 33. He and his crew were called to a house fire that day. They arrived on scene to find a “working fire” in the home, and the neighbors reported that they thought the occupants were still inside. John and his crew entered and soon found the family dog, rescued it, brought it outside and then returned to look for occupants, going off the neighbor’s word the family may still be inside. Turns out, they were not.

What happened next may be difficult for some to comprehend, but for those of us that have crawled through a strange house, in zero visibility, we get it. John got separated from his crew and called for help. Being a smart young firefighter, he made his way to a room not involved in fire and shut the door, trying to buy some time and give him some degree of protection from the growing heat and intense smoke. At some point, due to complete physical exhaustion, John vomited in his face-piece … bad deal. He removed his helmet, gloves and face-piece and tried in vain to clear the mask, but he was soon overcome by the superheated atmosphere and the immense toxicity of the smoke. Within a few breaths, he was unconscious.

Ten minutes later, his crew located him, removed him from the house and tried valiantly to revive him, but it was too late. John died that day, May 22, 2010. He left his wife, Amber, and two small children, 5 months and 2 years old. They didn’t get a chance to really know their dad, other than he was a firefighter and like many firefighter dads, he got to spend lots of time with them on days off, while Amber was at work.

Amber’s request was simple; she and John had vacationed in the valley for several years prior to his passing, and they had a special place they hiked. She wanted to come back to that spot and spread John’s ashes — she knew this is what he would have wanted as well.

She could have asked friends or family to come with her, but she knew what we all know — firefighters take care of their own, and John would have wanted Amber to be accompanied by his fellow firefighters this one last time; to honor him and support his wife.

Amber arrived a few weeks ago, and it was if we had known each other our whole lives. Four firefighters and Amber began the hike, knowing full well this was a rare moment and although uncomfortable, it carried a sense of duty ingrained in our soul. To say we were honored to accompany Amber is an understatement. This is integral to who we are and what we believe. Each of the four firefighters took our turn in carrying John’s remains. The moment we took hold of the container, something clicked. We felt the weight of the loss, the life he left behind, the man, husband, father and friend he once was. A profound kindred spirit of sorts that is difficult to put into words. It was like we were holding the most precious gift in the world; and at that moment, it was.

We spread John’s ashes in a beautiful spot — one I will never go by again without thinking of him and Amber. She let each of us spread some of his ashes. We felt this undeniable responsibility to embrace the gravity of the moment. Amber cried, we hugged over and over and it was all we could do to keep it together. This was closure for Amber. Something she needed to do, and something we needed to do for she and John. I’m guessing John was about as proud as any man could be at that moment. Amber sent me an email a few days later with some thoughts she shared with family and friends.

In her words:

“There comes a time in everyone’s life where you have to say goodbye. Some of these are expected, some are not. Some are welcome and some are a shock. Some goodbyes are definitely easier than others. This past weekend, I had the honor and privilege of being accompanied by the Vail fire chief and several firefighters to spread John Glaser’s ashes.

“While no one should have to do this at such a young age, I can’t say enough about these guys and the bond that firefighters share. It’s truly amazing. John would have been honored to have them by my side and to have called them his brothers. Four years ago, he went to work and never returned home. He battled a fierce house fire that left me as a young widow with a 5-month-old baby girl and a 2-year-old son. I’ve learned a lot about myself these last four years and realized that God only gives you what you can handle.

“There are good days and bad days, but time definitely heals. The kids are doing great; Brecken will be in first grade next year and wants to be a firefighter just like his daddy. Emma will be in kindergarten, has a crazy fun personality and is the one that gives me gray hair. We talk about their daddy a lot; they know what a great man he was and, most importantly, what an amazing father he was.”

Thanks, Amber. John, it was a privilege getting to know the man, husband, father and firefighter you were. Godspeed my brother.

Stay tuned …

Mark Miller is Vail’s fire chief.

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