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Thread: Second Nebraska Firefighter Dies from Injuries

  1. #1
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    Jan 2002

    Second Nebraska Firefighter Dies from Injuries

    Second Nebraska Firefighter Dies from Injuries

    Sarah Schulz and Gretchen Fowler

    WOOD RIVER -- The second Wood River volunteer firefighter injured in Saturday's blaze has died from his injuries, and the fire has been ruled an accident by the state fire marshal.

    Capt. Kenny Woitalewicz, 38, died around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at St. Francis Medical Center. He is survived by his wife, Melissa, and two young sons.

    Wood River Fire Chief Roger Derr formally announced the news of Woitalewicz's passing during a 4:30 p.m. press conference at the Wood River Fire Hall. The fire hall shares space with the Wood River city offices on Main Street, both of which bore solemn signs that the community was in a collective state of grief.

    A black wreath and draped black fabric have adorned the exterior of the brick building since Monday. The anything-but-festive decorations are a reminder, though one is not needed, of Saturday's events.

    Woitalewicz and fellow volunteer Capt. Robert "Bobby" Heminger, 39, were injured Saturday morning when they responded to a house fire at 211 W. 12th St. in Wood River.

    Heminger died Sunday at St. Francis, and one of the home's residents, Anna M. "Annie" Carrig, 73, was declared dead at the scene Saturday morning.

    "This is going to be tough to take," Derr said as he spoke to members of the media only hours after Woitalewicz's passing.

    At that time, Derr said he still didn't know what had caused the fire.

    Ray Nance, a public information officer with the state fire marshal's office, told The Independent during an interview by telephone that the fire was ruled an accident, but the cause will not be released by the state fire marshal's office. An exact reason for the decision was not given.

    Nance issued a press release about the fire with the following information:

    Early Saturday morning, Carrig's husband, Raymond Carrig, was awakened by the sound of a smoke alarm. He went to check on the cause of the alarm and found his wife standing in the living room near a small fire on the couch.

    He attempted to extinguish the blaze, but after a couple of attempts, he determined that the couch needed to be removed from the home. However, the couch became wedged in the doorway, and he was unable to get back inside, where his wife was standing.

    At 6:33 a.m., the Grand Island 911 Center received a call about a structure fire at the Carrigs' home, which is owned by Wilbur McComber. The call came from a person who had driven by the residence. The reporting party saw Mr. Carrig standing in his yard wearing only his pajamas.

    Wood River and Cairo fire departments arrived at the scene at 6:40 a.m. At 6:51 a.m., the state fire marshal's office received a call to respond to the scene due to a suspected fatality.

    At 7:14 a.m., it was reported that Heminger and Woitalewicz were trapped inside the home. They had entered the home to conduct a search but backed out to renew their air supply. They re-entered the home to continue the search and were in the area of the living room, which had been added on between the home and the garage, Nance said.

    According to Nance's press release, the fire and the weight of 2 to 3 inches of ice on the roof caused the roof to collapse on the firefighters. The men were taken to St. Francis by 7:40 a.m.

    Memorial Service & Donation Information

    A joint memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Thursday, at Wood River High School. Departments attending with apparatus should call (308)390-8535. Uniformed firefighters and departments with apparatus will assemble at the intersection of Hwy. 30, facing northbound on Hwy. 11, and should be in place by noon. Signs and assistance will be available. The procession to the cemetery is about three miles from the high school.

    Donations for the families of Bobby Heminger and Kenny Woitalewicz can be sent in care of the Wood River Firefighters' Family Relief Fund at the Heritage Bank, 110 E. Ninth St., Wood River, NE 68883.

    Heminger and Woitalewicz

  2. #2
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    Jan 2002

    Not Just A Friend, But Family

    Not Just A Friend, But Family

    Sarah Schulz

    WOOD RIVER -- Being a firefighter means trusting others with your life, and that trust creates a bond stronger than family ties.

    "The brotherhood of fire service creates not just a friend but a family member," said Nick Lammers, Wood River fire rescue captain.

    Firefighters treat each other the same way they would treat a blood relative, he said, and that connection has caused firefighters to keep a constant vigil for Capt. Kenny Woitalewicz at St. Francis Medical Center.

    They wait for word on a change in Woitalewicz's condition, which remained critical Monday afternoon.

    "There's always been a Wood River fireman at the hospital since this happened, and there always will be," Lammers said. "We're basically here to support the families. You need people around you when these things happen."

    Lammers has been with the volunteer department since 1980 and has worked with Woitalewicz since he joined approximately 15 years ago.

    Woitalewicz was injured Saturday morning when he responded to a house fire at 211 W. 12th St. in Wood River. The fire killed veteran Wood River firefighter Capt. Robert "Bobby" Heminger, 39, and one of the home's residents, Anna M. "Annie" Carrig, 73.

    Woitalewicz and Heminger had entered the home to rescue Carrig when part of the structure collapsed on them. Carrig was pronounced dead at the scene, and Heminger died Sunday morning at St. Francis.

    Lammers said there are 20 to 25 volunteer firefighters with the Wood River Rural Fire Department, and at any given time since Saturday, there have been 10 to 12 firefighters and their spouses at the hospital.

    "We've made a vow that someone will always be here," he said. "We're hoping and praying."

    Those prayers are for Woitalewicz, a man Lammers described as dedicated and full of life, his wife, Melissa, and their two young sons.

    "Everybody knows Kenny," he said. "You can't live in Wood River and not know Kenny. You could dial any number in the Wood River phone book, and they could tell you about him."

    Woitalewicz is the type of person who would give someone the shirt off his back. He's always willing to help with anything his fellow Wood River residents need, such as moving furniture or giving someone a ride to Omaha.

    "Because of that, he's always busy," Lammers said. "Kenny loves to get things going."

    Wood River Fire Chief Roger Derr said Woitalewicz takes his firefighting duties very seriously and has always been eager to learn. He said Woitalewicz is a captain who leads a team into a building, which is what he was doing Saturday morning.

    He's also the department's engineer and keeps track of vehicle maintenance.

    Woitalewicz, who works at Fairbanks Irrigation, worked for Derr at one time as well. Derr said he helped out by driving a tractor and discing fields.

    "You can always count on Kenny," he said. "He's always friendly. My gosh, he's friendly."

    In addition to lending their support to the Woitalewicz family, Derr said the firefighters are also helping Heminger's family plan his funeral.

    On Monday, a number of Grand Island firefighters had stopped by the St. Francis intensive care unit waiting room after the funeral for Arthur "Pooch" Gulzow, Derr said.

    Grand Island firefighter Mark Bonser was one of the men who checked on Woitalewicz Monday afternoon. He said there were at least 50 firefighters in full dress uniforms in the waiting room.

    To extend support beyond the well wishes and hugs, the firefighters, with help from Wood River Mayor John Webster, have set up a fund for the families.

    Bonser said the Wood River Firefighters' Family Relief Fund will be used to help the Woitalewicz and Heminger families pay a wide range of bills.

    "Bob will no longer be able to provide, and the bills will keep coming in," Bonser said of Heminger.

    Since Woitalewicz was seriously injured as well, the donations made to the fund will be divided between the two families, he said.

    "It's going to be a long road," Bonser said, "and we want to be there for them."

  3. #3
    Registered User SeaBreeze's Avatar
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    Woitalewicz, Kenny

    Age: 38
    Cause of Death: Caught or Trapped
    Rank: Captain
    Nature of Death: Burns
    Status: Volunteer
    Emergency Duty: Yes

    Incident Date: 02/15/2004
    Duty Type: Fireground Operations
    Incident Time: 06:45
    Activity Type: Search and Rescue
    Death Date: 02/17/2004
    Fixed Prop. Use: Residential

    Fire Dept. Info:
    Wood River Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department
    1002 Main St.
    P.O. Box 96
    Wood River , Nebraska 68883
    Chief: Roger Derr

    Initial Summary: Captains Woitalewicz and Heminger died as a result of injuries sustained while searching a burning residence for an occupant when the roof collapsed trapping them.

    Memorial Fund Info:
    Wood River Fire Fighters Family Relief Fund. Contact the Heritage Bank @ 110 E. 9th St. Wood River, NE 68883, (308) 583-2262.

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    Firefighters, EMTs From Across Nebraska Solemnly Gather

    Firefighters, EMTs From Across Nebraska Solemnly Gather

    Courtesy of The Grand Island Independant

    WOOD RIVER -- A community of family, friends and neighbors came together on Thursday to bid farewell to two of their own.

    But another community gathered on Thursday in Wood River to pay last respects to their fallen comrades.

    Prior to the funeral for Wood River firefighters Capt. Robert Heminger and Capt. Kenneth Woitalewicz, about 500 firefighters, law enforcement personnel and emergency medical technicians from across Nebraska gathered at Babel's Barn before proceeding to Wood River Rural High School, where the services were held.

    Both Heminger and Woitalewicz died as the result of injuries suffered while attempting to rescue Anna Carrig on Saturday at a house fire in Wood River. Carrig died at the scene. Heminger died early Sunday morning and Woitalewicz on Tuesday.

    Traveling with a contingent of volunteer firefighters and EMTs from Imperial was veteran firefighter of 29 years Dan Rowley. He knew both Heminger and Woitalewicz from the fire schools they had attended. He had come to Wood River to assist on Saturday after learning about the deadly accident involving the two firefighters.

    Rowley said that shared sense of duty brought him and the other firefighters and emergency personnel to Wood River to pay their last respects to Heminger and Woitalewicz and condolences to their families.

    "We are all in this together," he said.

    That shared sense of duty in the face of the unpredictability that can define a fire scene binds firefighters together. Judgments of life and death are made in a split second, and lives can be lost in the line of duty, such as with Heminger and Woitalewicz in their unselfish and dangerous attempt to rescue a fellow human being.

    "It's something that you never know," Rowley said. "Every time you go out on a call, you're laying your life on the line. When one of us falls, it's pretty sad."

    Attending the funeral with his fellow firefighters from Lincoln was David Backhus. Like Rowley, he felt a deep sense of loss at the deaths of his two brother firefighters.

    "We are sad that this would happen," Backhus said. "We should never lose a brother or a sister in a fire. It's our jobs. It's what we do. We are here to pay our respects to the guys who have lost their lives."

    Backhus said he has experienced his share of close calls while fighting fires during his 14 years as a firefighter.

    "You never know when you go out the door," he said. "It could be your last call. These guys were pretty special."

    It was also fitting that the firefighters, law enforcement officials and other emergency personnel gathered at Babel's Barn, which is about a quarter-mile from Wood River Rural High School, where the funerals were held.

    Babel's Barn is owned by 18-year Wood River Volunteer Fire Department veteran Tom Babel.

    The facility also hosted about 70 people who watched the services via closed-circuit television. The hookup with the high school was donated by Charter Communications.

    After the funeral and burial of Heminger and Woitalewicz, the families of the two fallen firefighters gathered back at Babel's Barn for a dinner.

    Babel said the barn is like a second home to many members of the Wood River Volunteer Fire Department. It's a place where meetings, meals, receptions and recreational events occur and the firefighters could unwind with their friends and families.

    "I think one of the reasons why they wanted to have the meal out here is this is like home to them," Babel said. "This has been their building. The Fire Department uses this facility for different things.

    "Bobby was always here for the Husker football games and the other events we have here. Kenny would come over, too. This is kind of a second home for the firemen for whatever they wanted to use it for."

    He said having the building host some of the events associated with the funerals brought personal meaning not only to him and his fellow members of the Wood River Volunteer Fire Department but also to the hundreds of other firefighters and emergency personnel who gathered there prior to the funeral. Babel said both Heminger's and Woitalewicz's presence will always be part of the building.

    While Babel has been a member of the Wood River Volunteer Fire Department for 18 years, he said he hasn't been active over the last four to five years

    "I've been pretty busy and haven't been helping a lot," he said. "But with these guys now gone, I'm going to start responding again."

    Babel said the community has really come together after the deaths of their family members.

    "It tells me that people care about people," he said. "It is what makes Wood River a special place."

    Helping out with the services at Babel's Barn was Neal Sidders, who is a member of the Wood River Rural Fire Board. He knew both Heminger and Woitalewicz very well.

    "It was very touching service," Sidders said. "It commemorated their service to the community. We will miss them very much."

  5. #5
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    Final Call Home for Heroic Nebraska Firefighters

    Final Call Home for Heroic Nebraska Firefighters

    Small-town heroes are given a big-time goodbye

    Courtesy of The Grand Island Independant

    WOOD RIVER -- Leading more than 125 emergency vehicles in a procession to the Wood River Cemetery on Thursday, Capts. Robert Heminger and Kenny Woitalewicz took one final ride on Wood River Engine No. 30.

    Firefighters, emergency medical technicians and law enforcement officers from across the state and beyond convened on the town of 1,200 people to show their respect to the two men who gave their lives in an attempt to save another.

    A roof collapsed on Heminger and Woitalewicz early Saturday morning at a house fire in Wood River. They were performing a search and rescue for 73-year-old Anna M. Carrig of 211 W. 12th St. when the accident occurred.

    Carrig was pronounced dead at the scene. Heminger died on Sunday at St. Francis Medical Center in Grand Island as a result of his injuries, and Woitalewicz lost his battle on Tuesday at St. Francis.

    More than 1,800 people filled the Wood River Rural High School gym for Thursday's combined funeral service for the two volunteer firefighters. Even more people were seated in the school's commons area and at a community building nearby, where the service was telecast on a large screen.

    As bagpipes played, Wood River firefighters accompanied the flag-draped coffins to the west end of the gym. Uniformed guards were posted at each end of the coffins, which sat in front of Heminger's and Woitalewicz's wives and children.

    Heminger is survived by his wife, Eva, a son, Jonathan, and a daughter, Lindsay. Woitalewicz is survived by his wife, Melissa, and two sons, Matthew and Ryan.

    "If we had the love in the world that we have here now," the Rev. Tom Ryan said as he looked out into the crowded gymnasium, "we wouldn't have war."

    Uniformed firefighters, emergency medical technicians and law enforcement officers came from nearby communities such as Dannebrog, Cairo and St. Paul. Others in Nebraska uniforms came from as far away as Plattsmouth, Omaha and McCook.

    "It seems the hardest thing in life is to lose somebody you dearly love," the Rev. Karen Kennerly said as she spoke to the families. "Nobody should have to endure the losses you're experiencing."

    Kennerly said she asked Heminger's children what they would say to him if given the chance. Their answer was, "I miss you and miss your teasing and playing and jokes."

    Heminger was described as a man who had a good sense of humor and enjoyed spending time with his children. He taught his son, Jonathan, about hunting and gun safety and this fall took Jonathan to bag his first pheasant.

    Woitalewicz was known throughout the community for his smile and the way he would honk and wave at people as he drove through town. Kennerly said he enjoyed playing practical jokes and was a master craftsman.

    Reflecting on Saturday's accident that claimed the lives of 39-year-old Heminger and 38-year-old Woitalewicz, the Rev. James Janovec said, "They put themselves in harm's way in a very courageous and heroic act on Valentine's Day."

    Janovec said that, according to Heminger's father, Dewey, the two men did the right thing by going into the burning home and would have been the first to do it again.

    "What they did will not be forgotten by you or by us," Janovec said as he addressed the family.

    He said Heminger and Woitalewicz will be remembered by God for laying down their lives for another.

    As the musical group Wheel of Faith performed "Wind Beneath My Wings," Woitalewicz's wife, Melissa, held her 4-year-old son, Ryan, in her lap. She hugged him and kissed him while shedding tears for her husband and his fallen comrade, who was often at his side.

    At the conclusion of the service, Woitalewicz's and Heminger's children were presented with plaques by tearful Wood River firefighters. They hugged each one of the children tightly and returned to their seats in silence.

    In addition to paying tribute to the two fallen firefighters, those who attended Thursday's service were asked to remember Carrig and to pray for her husband, Ray, who escaped the fire uninjured.

    They were also reminded by Kennerly that, "All of us need to be neighbors to each other and help each other no matter what the circumstances."

    Following the graveside services at the Wood River Cemetery, emergency vehicles from across the state drove by the Wood River fire hall as a tribute to the department, which was established in 1908.

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