Senators Carper and Coons honor Delaware firefighters on the Senate floor

WASHINGTON – On September 28, 2016, Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons (both D-Del.) spoke on the Senate floor to honor Delaware firefights Jerry Fickes and Chris Leach who died in the line of duty last week. The text of the Senators’ floor speech, as prepared for delivery, is below:

SENATOR COONS: Mr. President, it is with a heavy heart that Senator Carper and I come to the floor this evening to honor Chris Leach and Jerry Fickes, two brave Wilmington firefighters who lost their lives this past Saturday night.

In any state, in any community, the loss of a firefighter or a police officer is devastating. But in our small state of neighbors — a close-knit state with an even closer-knit first responder community, a community that includes families and multiple generations — it is especially hard.

To those who knew Chris and Jerry, it must be little comfort now that we’re here on the floor of the United States Senate to pay tribute to their lives. But in the next few minutes, we hope to capture just a fraction of the light that they brought to their families and to our community with their love and their service.

Lieutentant Christopher Leach wasn’t supposed to be working on Saturday night, but he filled in for another firefighter, likely thinking it would be a shift like any other, but always willing to step forward and serve.

After getting the call there was a fire in a Canby Park rowhouse, Chris did what he’d been training to do since 1993. Chris did what he’d told his friends all the way back to Salesianum High School, what he’d always wanted to do as long as they could remember: he fought fire.

Chris grew up in the volunteer fire service. He joined the Talleyville Fire Company in 1993 at the age of 18, rising steadily through the ranks of the volunteer fire service to Captain. The more time he spent at the firehouse, the more he loved it.

Four years later, at age 22, Chris joind the Claymont Fire Company and served as a full-time firefighter and EMT there. Chris was a lifelong learner, doing whatever he could to develop new skills to support his crewmates and to help save lives. Chris took classes all over our country, from Virginia to Texas to California.

And Chris’s training paid off. In July of 2002, at a house fire in Claymont, a firefighter from the ladder company fell through the first floor and into the basement. Chris and two others saved that firefighter’s life, earning Chris a series of recognitions, including fireman of the year from New Castle County volunteer fire service and from the Claymont Fire Company.

Several months later, Chris joined the Wilmington Fire Department, where he was assigned to Engine 4, B platoon. He was only there a couple years before he was transferred to Special Operations command of Engine 1-B, where he quickly was recognized for his work, and then to Rescue 1-B. At the time of his passing, he was serving with Engine 6.

All of this time, Chris never stopped learning and improving, never stopped acting on his passion for firefighting. He researched, and applied for, and earned a $200,000 grant for extra training and equipment. He wrote the Standard Operating Procedures for the Special Operations Command. He trained as an instructor in NIMS, the National Incident Management System, and made sure that every Talleyville volunteer member became certified in the NIMS system. He served on the New Castle County Task Force rescue team, and he earned a bachelor of science in the Fire Service Administration from Waldorf University.

Throughout a long and distinguished firefighting career, Chris was constantly achieving and growing, saving lives and building new skills. Described by so many I’ve spoken to as a “firefighter’s firefighter,” his commitment to his brothers and sisters at the firehouse was relentless. If he thought the department needed something done, he’d go do it himself. If the fire company couldn’t afford something, he’d find a way to make it happen.

That commitment went beyond just his professional leadership. Chris, I’ve heard from so many, was a good and loyal and faithful friend, a softball teammate, but also a practical joker; a lover of Billy Joel and Lynyrd Skynyrd; a so-called “Mr. Fix-It” and “King of Nicknames;” a big guy with a big heart and a deep voice who couldn’t hide when he entered a room.

Chris was someone who volunteered at the firehouse on his days off and visited elementary schools to talk about his love of firefighting and to help persuade a young generation to join him. As his friend, Andy Millis, described him, Chris was the kind of lieutenant you just wanted to work for.

He loved his job, he loved his colleagues, and he loved his responsibility. But there was nothing he loved more than his family. His mother, Fran, his sister, Katie, Katie’s wife, Carolee. His fiancée, Kate, and her boys, Landon and Casey.

Chris, most of all, loved his beautiful children. He said there was nothing greater than being a father to his kids, Brendon, age 16, Abby, 14, and Megan, 12. He took them camping and fishing, to the beach and to Cub Scouts, and always found a way to be there for their every activity. Chris lived for his kids.

Chris lost his own father, Michael, to cancer in 2004, and always kept his dad’s funeral card in his helmet. Chris honored his father by being a great dad himself — just as Michael was to him.

We can only hope that in the brief time each of us have here that we shine brightly and relentlessly for the people we love and the community we serve. Few, few shine as brightly as Chris Leach did.

With that, Mr. President, I’d like to yield the floor to my colleague from Delaware, Senator Carper, who will share some words about another hero whom we also lost on Saturday, Senior Firefighter Jerry Fickes.

SENATOR CARPER: I want to thank my colleague Senator Chris Coons for allowing me to join him and together offer this tribute to Chris Leach and Jerry Fickes. Earlier this day this floor was busy with joyful activity as Democrats and Republicans tried to work together to come to agreement on a spending plan to fund our government past the end of this fiscal year to the beginning of the coming fiscal year and work out some difficult compromises. We said goodbye to one another and headed back to our respected states until after the election.

On the heels of a joyous afternoon comes a far more serious one, and now is the opportunity to say goodbye and thank you to two Delawareans who were really true public servants who tragically lost their lives this past weekend trying to save the lives of others. Chris Leach and Jerry Fickes. I’m going to talk about Jerry as Senator Coons has shared with us some wonderful words about Lt. Chris Leach.

On Saturday, Jerry Fickes, a 13-year veteran of the Wilmington Fire Department, rushed into a burning home when a member of the Search and Rescue team, Lieutenant Chris Leach, became trapped in the blaze.

While Jerry and Chris were inside the building, the first floor gave way, and tragically, both Jerry and Chris lost their lives.

Jerry Fickes Jr. was a husband, father, son, U.S. Army veteran, and beloved member of Delaware’s firefighter family.

He was born in Evanston, Illinois to his mother, Jo Ann, who sadly predeceased him, and his father, Jerry, after whom he is named.

Growing up in Illinois and later moving to Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Jerry’s early life was full of innocent mischief and football games outside with the neighbors and his five brothers and sisters: Karen, Jeri, Kimberly, Steven and David. 

The neighborhood kids played together so much, crossing through each other’s yards constantly to get to different houses, that the neighbors were unsuccessful at keeping shrubs along their property line.

When Jerry started his freshman year at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, his grades were less than stellar. But, in reality, Jerry was just bored. Once he joined the Army ROTC, things turned around. The Army ROTC gave him structure and he became very driven and goal-oriented. By the time he reached his junior year, during which he would meet his future wife, Laura, while she was working the phone in their dorm’s office, Jerry had it all together.

Jerry was a serious student, but he was known as a fun guy, too. He graduated with a degree in computer science and mathematics, but also had a lot of gym credits because he made being active a priority. His motto became “Mind, Body, Spirit: If you have all three, then you’re sound.”

College and the ROTC taught Jerry that there’s a lot more to learning than just memorizing facts. And that’s when everything started to click for Jerry. He took actuarial exams before graduating college and started his obligation to the army with officer training at Fort Benning. He took a test and scored so well that the Army asked him what he would like to do. Jerry told them he wanted to go in the infantry, because he wanted to make a difference and that’s where he felt he could best do it. I think that tells us a lot about Jerry Fickes. 

His wife Laura recalls the first time she met Jerry – in a tiny office in his dorm building where she answered the phones. When people would call for him, everyone would say his name differently. Fix, Ficks. Laura could never find his name in the directory until finally, one day, she met him in person. She asked him, “How do you say your name?” and he just replied, “You can say whatever you want to say” and walked away.  Little did she know, she would take that name just a few years later as her own.

Once married, Jerry had the opportunity to become an actuary with Alico in Wilmington, Delaware, and the newlyweds, with their hard to pronounce last name, came to the East Coast. Jerry worked at Alico for a while and then later became a consultant for Ernst and Young in Philadelphia.

But something always nagged at Jerry. You see, Jerry had the heart of a servant, and when the first Gulf War came around, he knew he could use his training in chemical warfare to be an asset to the Army. He called his reserve unit in Kansas to be put on the activation list, but at the time, and much to his wife Laura’s relief, he wasn’t called up.

But Jerry wanted to do more. So it didn’t surprise Laura one bit when Jerry decided to join the Aetna Hose Hook and Ladder Company in Newark, Delaware as a volunteer firefighter. For over a decade, Jerry selflessly juggled his firefighting duties with a full-time career in financial services and a new family that would eventually include two young sons, Ben and Josh. 

It also didn’t surprise Laura when, after 12 years of volunteering, Jerry could no longer ignore his true calling. So he gave up his job in financial services to work full-time with the Wilmington Fire Company.

From day one, Jerry jumped at the chance to take every call that came in on his shift. Because of this, his fellow firefighters called Jerry “a dynamo.” Sometimes, his determination to get the job done right would leave Jerry covered in melted roof shingles or draped in insulation from an attic while everyone else’s gear was nearly clean.

Those mischievous days running around the neighborhood in Kansas weren’t far off. Around the firehouse, Jerry was known as a prolific prankster. His friends recall that he would often pull a prank and then sit back, watching and waiting as everyone tried to figure out who was responsible for this latest joke.

Jerry lived a full life, but perhaps no job was more important to him than helping to raise his two sons, Ben and Josh. Jerry was always interested in hearing about his sons’ and even their friends’ interests, goals and projects. He was the first to help them research a science project, chaperone big gatherings or teach Sunday school at Grace Lutheran Church in Hockessin.

Even though Jerry didn’t care much for running, he knew how much his son Ben did. Jerry was so interested in his sons’ passions that Jerry did the first few triathlons with Ben, and, this past May, they both ran a marathon! They were both getting excited to run their next race. In fact, just last week, Jerry was thrilled to learn that his son had qualified for the Boston Marathon – a huge point of pride for him.

Ben, a Charter School of Wilmington graduate and now a freshman at Northeastern in Boston, and Josh, a junior at Charter, both learned from their dad what is really important in life – to serve others. To shake adults’ hands and look them in the eye. Give your seat up on the subway or the bus or the train for someone else. This is how Jerry lived his life, and what he passed down to his children. 

Jerry was a true public servant, devoting his entire adult life to others. He was also a man of deep faith.

His service, and ultimately, his sacrifice, reminds me of a passage in the Bible – from the Book of John: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

While no words can ease the suffering of Jerry’s family, we seek solace in the memory of a life lived for others. And a life given to others by a brave and selfless man.

I pray, and will continue to pray, for Jerry’s wife of 26 years, Laura; their two sons, Ben and Josh; Jerry’s father Jerry, Sr.; his brothers Steven and David, his sisters Karen, Jeri and Kimberly and his many nieces and nephews, and his brothers and sisters in the Wilmington Fire Services.

Words can never truly express the pride we have in our hearts for our firefighters or how grateful we are for their sacrifice, and that of their families. Because the work that they do every day – the work that Jerry got up and did every day – is unlike any other. From the moment he and his fellow firefighters put on that uniform every morning, they have answered a call that they know could put their life at risk in just a moment. 

I’m reminded of the words of the firefighter’s prayer: “When I am called to duty, God, wherever flames may race, give me the strength to save some life, whatever be its age … and if, according to our fate, I have to lose my life, please bless with your protecting hand my children and my wife.”

The prayer embodies the selflessness that Jerry Fickes displayed every single day. He took an oath to serve, knowing that, one day, he might not come home, but feeling even more strongly that he had to help others. Now, it is my hope that our community in Delaware can be a part of that protecting hand looking after Jerry’s family and helping to comfort them in their time of need. 

To all of Delaware’s firefighters who are in mourning but continue to put on your gear and go to work to protect our communities, we salute you and we say thank you. Thank you for your unwavering commitment to lives lived in the service to others.

God Bless you all and God Bless Jerry Fickes.  I yield the floor.

SENATOR COONS: Thank you, Senator Carper.

Mr. President, before we conclude, let us share our deepest gratitude to Arty Hope and Brad Speakman, two Wilmington firefighters who were also badly injured in Saturday’s fire. They are still in the hospital, Chester-Crozer, recovering, and we pray for a speedy recovery.

We’re thankful as well for the safety of John Cawthray, Peter Cramer, and Terrance Tate, firefighters who were also injured in the fire, and for all of their colleagues.

Mr. President, for Delaware’s first responder community, in some ways tomorrow will be like any other. Our firefighters, our police officers, our EMTs, and paramedics will be on call, keeping us safe and secure. And we, the rest of us in our community and state and country — we’ll go on about our lives, many folks really not thinking about them until the moment we need them.

But no matter what we’re doing and what we’re thinking, when their shift starts, they’ll be on. They’ll be on duty, ready to run without hesitation, even into situations that would cause the rest of us to run in the opposite direction.

As Christiana Fire Chief Rich Perillo said this past Sunday, “the only thing we ever signed up to do is protect our neighbors and neighborhoods, and that we will continue to do, no matter what comes our way.”

We are both so grateful for the dedication, the service, and the love shown by the Delaware fire service to protecting neighbors.

In that sense, today and tomorrow and the days after that will be like any other, in that we can continue to rely on our first responders. And we are grateful for that.

But in so many other ways — in the ways that truly matter — it just won’t be the same. For Chris and Jerry’s families and friends, for their brothers and sisters at the firehouse, for all the members of our first responder community, and for all the Delawareans who had a chance to work or serve with them and to be protected by them, things won’t be the same.

That’s why we pray for their families. We pray that tomorrow will be just a little easier for them than today. And the next day a little easier than tomorrow, and so on, until the pain is eventually matched by the joy that comes from remembering someone you love, and by the gratefulness we all feel for having had the privilege to know someone special.

One of life’s unsung joys is the look on a child’s face in the presence of one of their heroes.

Mr. President, have you ever seen a young child as a fire truck goes by, their eyes wide with amazement as the station door rises, sirens wail, the lights flash, and the bright red truck goes by, with an American flag waving from the back?

As adults, we notice it, we wonder what might have happened, and we go back to our day. Even though a child doesn’t know more than we do where the truck is going, they know, they know that that’s what a hero looks like.

As a father, I look at firefighters like Chris and Jerry with the same sense of awe that young children do. Not just because of their uniforms or the sirens or the truck, but because of their commitment. Their deep and lifelong commitment to a dangerous job.

They love their children and their families. They’ve been there for their friends and neighbors. They’ve served their communities and their brothers and sisters at the firehouse tirelessly, all while risking their lives every day, leaving for a shift never knowing if they’ll come home that night or the next morning. That’s what a hero looks like.

This week, and in the weeks to come, I know Senator Carper and I and our whole community will remember, will mourn, will pray for, and be grateful for Chris and Jerry. Like a child watching an engine rush by, we’ll see their lives fly by in our memories and our tributes, knowing they went by too quickly, leaving us before we can truly appreciate where they’re going, or why.

But amidst so much we cannot know, we can take solace in knowing that they’re going for a reason far bigger than any one of us.

And as we watch them pass into memory, we can say to ourselves what the child says when he sees a fire truck go by: that’s what a hero looks like.

Let me leave you with the same passage from Scripture shared by Senator Caper from John 15: “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Thank you, Chris and Jerry, for your sacrifice, your service, your love, and for laying down your lives for all of us.

And thank you, Senator Carper, for joining me tonight.

Thank you, Mr. President.