Thousands mourn fallen firefighters in Washington state

AP News
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Posted: Aug 30, 2015 9:12 PM
Thousands mourn fallen firefighters in Washington state

WENATCHEE, Wash. (AP) — Several thousand people gathered Sunday to honor three U.S. Forest Service firefighters killed battling wildfires in Washington state.

"They dedicated their lives to protecting our national forests and the people in the communities surrounding them," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a eulogy. "And for that we should be grateful."

The memorial service for 20-year-old Tom Zbyszewski, 26-year-old Andrew Zajac, and 31-year-old Richard Wheeler took place in Wenatchee. That's about 90 miles south of where they died Aug. 19 near Twisp in eastern Washington when flames consumed their crashed vehicle.

More than 80 vehicles took part in a procession leading to the memorial service Sunday where more than 100 firefighters stood at attention. Dozens of civilians also took part, many holding U.S. flags and others with signs that said "You are heroes!"

Tom Zbyszewski followed in his father's footsteps as a firefighter. He was the youngest of the three who died, and a physics major at Whitman College with an acting bent. He was due to return to school in about a week.

"Tom was the light of my life," his father, Richard Zbyszewski, said in his eulogy. "My path I'm afraid will always be a little bit darker because I miss him so much."

Zajac was the son of a Methodist minister from Downers Grove, Illinois. He was in his second year as a professional wildland firefighter for the Forest Service and earned a master's degree in biology last year from the University of South Dakota. Zajac and his wife, Jenn, were married last year after hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Coast Trail together in 2013.

Jenn, in a statement read by Zajec's mother, Mary, said, "Andrew was my calm and my strength; my belay (climbing) partner, my fishing buddy, my hiking companion, my love. Just under a year ago we made a promise until death do us part. I just never imaged it would come so soon. I'll miss him forever."

Wheeler, "Wheels" as his friends called him during their eulogies, was a fourth-generation firefighter as well as an avid fisherman, hiker and hunter.

This was Wheeler and his wife Celeste's second year living in Wenatchee after he graduated in 2013 from Grand Valley State University in Michigan. He was a seasonal worker with hopes of becoming a permanent wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was out of the country, so his wife, Trudi Inslee, presented each of the families with state flags. The families also received Forest Service flags, small statues, and a Pulaski, a firefighting tool still in use today but also heavy with symbolism. When a person becomes a wildland firefighter, they are said to "pick up the Pulaski."

"Without men like Tom and Richard and Andrew, we would not be able to protect and care for the lands they devoted their lives to," Tidwell said.

Daniel Lyon, who sustained burns on more than 60 percent of his body in the fire that killed the three firefighters, on Sunday remained in serious condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he's had two successful burn surgeries. A spokeswoman said the 25-year-old is scheduled to undergo another operation this week.