Ceremony honors fallen firefighters

Evanston firefighters held remembrance ceremonies Tuesday for fallen firefighters at Firemen's Park, at Maple Avenue and Simpson Street. | Bob Seidenberg/Sun-Times Media

A remembrance ceremony to honor the lives of fallen firefighters was held Tuesday, blocks away from where firefighter Marty Leoni, Jr., lost his life on July 22, 1985.

Firefighters paid homage to Leoni and two others in Evanston Fire Department history, at the ceremony at Fireman’s Park, on a warm summer day, not that unlike the one where Leoni lost his life.

“When the companies arrived, there was a report of a 1-year-old child on the second floor,” said Evanston Fire Department Division Chief Brian Scott, recalling the grim details of the fire at 1927 Jackson Ave.

“Evanston firefighters do not hesitate. Marty didn’t hesitate. He made his way to a second floor bedroom. A smoke explosion occurred, trapping Marty and burning him to death.”

Before Leoni, the only other firefighter fatalities occurred 80 years prior.

At 12:50 p.m., on Dec. 13, 1905, firefighters responded to an alarm at 1900 Dempster St., at the old Mark Manufacturing Company, which was the largest manufacturer and employer in the city at the time.

Acting Cmdr. George Stiles and fellow firefighters Edward Johnson, and William Craig were attacking the fire from southeast of the pipe mill when an explosion occurred. Stiles was attempting to relocate the firefighters when a second wall collapsed, “trapping all three firefighters,” said Scott, reciting the tragic history.

“Acting Officer Stiles and Craig perished in that fire,” Scott said.

In 1993, a Fallen Firefighters’ monument was dedicated in the park to honor those who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Tuesday’s ceremony was held a short distance from the monument, which several speakers made reference to.

“There’s really no way to give thanks for the sacrifices of these three men,” said Fire Chaplain David Jones. He said that valor continues with today’s firefighter who put their lives on the line every day, and who, without them, “we’d be in big trouble.”

Firefighter-paramedic Jason Hayes noted that while the men and women of the fire service have had to change their methods and strategies at times to deal with increasingly complex challenges, “our goals remain the same, as in the past, to save lives, protect property, sometimes at terrible costs. That is our tradition.”

Firefighters, police and community members observed silent prayer in the firefighters’ memory. At the end of the ceremony, a bell was rung three times, representing their tasks completed, their duties well done, Hayes said.

When a firefighter died in line of duty, paying the ultimate sacrifice, “it was the mournful tone of the bell that solemnly announced a comrade’s passing,” observed Hayes.

“We utilize these traditions as symbols which reflect honor and respect on those who have given so much and have served so well,” he said, before the tones of the bell and sound of bagpipes brought the ceremony to an end.

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