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Ray Duckler

Ray Duckler: A tragedy in Boston hits home here

  • Phil Tirrell (right) poses for a portrait with Matt Fallon (left), one of his  partners the day that they saved a man's life on the Suncook River at the Concord Heights fire station in Concord on March 28, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Phil Tirrell (right) poses for a portrait with Matt Fallon (left), one of his partners the day that they saved a man's life on the Suncook River at the Concord Heights fire station in Concord on March 28, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Concord batallion chief Rick Whitney poses for a portrait next to the flag at half staff for the fire fighters that died at a brownstone fire in Boston at the Central Station in Concord on March 28, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Concord batallion chief Rick Whitney poses for a portrait next to the flag at half staff for the fire fighters that died at a brownstone fire in Boston at the Central Station in Concord on March 28, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Concord batallion chief Rick Whitney poses for a portrait at the Central Station in Concord on March 28, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Concord batallion chief Rick Whitney poses for a portrait at the Central Station in Concord on March 28, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Matt Fallon (left) and Phil Tirrell (right) at the Concord Heights firehouse in Concord on March 28, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Matt Fallon (left) and Phil Tirrell (right) at the Concord Heights firehouse in Concord on March 28, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Phil Tirrell (right) poses for a portrait with Matt Fallon (left), one of his  partners the day that they saved a man's life on the Suncook River at the Concord Heights fire station in Concord on March 28, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Concord batallion chief Rick Whitney poses for a portrait next to the flag at half staff for the fire fighters that died at a brownstone fire in Boston at the Central Station in Concord on March 28, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Concord batallion chief Rick Whitney poses for a portrait at the Central Station in Concord on March 28, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Matt Fallon (left) and Phil Tirrell (right) at the Concord Heights firehouse in Concord on March 28, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

Phil Tirrell pulled the bill of his hat down to hide his tears.

Already emotionally vulnerable after the deaths of two Boston firefighters, he choked up over childhood memories of his father, the longtime fire chief in Lempster.

Tirrell remembers fire trucks parked on his front lawn and riding in one during the annual town parade. He remembers his father going to Boston to retrieve secondhand stuff, leather helmets and rubber boots and canvas coats, needed because of a shoestring budget.

He even remembers his parents kicking in their own money to make sure the tiny town had what it needed to remain safe.

“We didn’t necessarily have very much growing up,” said Tirrell, a 19-year veteran of the Concord Fire Department. “I remember my mother and father taking out loans, what it’s always meant to me. If you wanted anything, you had ham and bean dinners and dances. You did anything you could do to afford the equipment.”

The bloodline so often helps shape who these people are, who they become. Maybe there’s a firefighter chromosome, along with those for eye color and height.

Maybe that’s what pushed Tirrell and two other firefighters, Ronald Lowd and Matt Fallon, into a boat Aug. 10, 2008, to face the Suncook River’s angry rapids.

They bobbed their way toward a man, trapped in swollen waters off Route 4 in Epsom, his body pressed against his kayak and tangled tightly in the branches of a fallen tree.

“The crew decided together we were going to take a shot at it,” Tirrell said. “This would not generally be a place where we would put our boat, but we felt as though after talking to the chief that this guy was done. We were probably this guy’s last shot.”

They got close, their boat feeling insignificant against the rushing water. They tossed a rope and lassoed the kayak, bailing water from their boat at the same time, then pulled the man in.

They tossed another rope to rescue personnel on the shore 25 feet away and were pulled to safety. I asked Tirrell if he thought about his wife and three kids at any point during the rescue.

“Focus on the other two guys in the boat,” Tirrell said. “Focus on if everything goes wrong in the boat, what is our Plan B? What happens if this boat folds up? What is our plan?”

Concord Chief Dan Andrus also followed his father, a chief himself in Salt Lake City. His dad suffered a heart attack at the scene of a fire in 1971, when Andrus was 11.

Firefighters rushed him to the hospital and saved his life. He lived another 33 years, and he gave his son a vision that remains clear to this day.

“I have a profound sense of gratitude for what they do, and there’s no better way to spend your life than to offer it in the service of others,” Andrus said.

Concord Battalion Chief Richard Whitney recalled examples of this service.

He recalled a fire on Eastern Avenue a few years ago, when he and others were on the first floor while another firefighter stood trapped one floor above, after the ceiling had collapsed. They got him out.

He remembered the time a floor caved at a home on Valley Street, sending a firefighter straight down, into the basement. They got him out, too.

And he helped a layman understand what happened to those two Boston firefighters, Ed Walsh and Michael Kennedy, last week, explaining how fast a major fire, starving for oxygen, can grow even meaner.

“They create their own windstorms, just that fire trying to draw that much more air in,” Whitney said. “Once it draws that much more in, all that stuff that has been super-heated that has not reached its flash point, it’s going to light up. Hit the ground and try to close the door.”

This is the purest form of heroism, with clear goals and clear dangers. Rush in, eat smoke, look for people. Climb into a boat, ride rapids, pluck someone out of the water.

Concord hasn’t lost a firefighter in the line of duty in 35 years. “June 18 of 1979,” Andrus says, almost before the question is finished.

He emailed me the press clipping, which said Stephen Cotter died from a cerebral hemorrhage after responding to a medical call.

Before that, on Sept. 27, 1973, Deputy Chief Russell Robinson died from a heart attack while fighting a fire on North State Street. A 19-year-old woman named Melissa Mosley died in the fire, a newspaper clipping showed.

In Boston on Wednesday, news of the two deaths spread like the Back Bay fire itself. Andrus said he was sick to his stomach.

Tirrell had worried earlier that day about the strong wind, thinking how tough it would be to fight a fire because of the conditions, snapping his fingers to show the speed in which a fire can grow.

He said he was “horrified” when he heard about what happened. He said it made him think of the people he works with in Concord.

“We live together, we work together, we eat together,” Tirrell said. “I spend half my life with these guys.”

And he said it brought him back, to Lempster, forcing him to pull his hat down over his eyes before relaying his thoughts.

“Obviously I looked up to my dad everyday,” Tirrell said. “He was the chief.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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