This past week was difficult for the American fire service with the funerals for the nine firefighters from the Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department. Across the ocean, in a small town in Belgium, a fatal fire apparatus accident also has had an impact on a fire department here in the states.
In June 2006, the Fire Observers, a group of eight firefighters from across Belgium, visited Tualatin Valley (Ore.) Fire & Rescue for an educational experience. As the Fire Observers learned about how the American fire service operates, they exchanged ideas, shared fire stories and enjoyed camaraderie throughout their two-week visit. They also kept a blog, complete with pictures.
Last week, just outside of Brussels, the Asse Volunteer Fire Brigade was responding to a house fire in the neighboring city of Wemmel. The driver of the engine lost control of the apparatus, and the vehicle made “head rolls,” landing upside down against the foundation of a concrete bridge.
The apparatus was carrying five firefighters: the driver, a 27-year veteran with the brigade, was killed immediately; the other four were injured, two seriously.
Of the seriously injured firefighters, one is fighting for his life, and the other, Guy De Bondt, is paralyzed from the waist down. De Bondt, 29, was one of the Fire Observers who visited Tualatin Valley last year. He and his girlfriend are expecting a baby in December. Firefighters from Tualatin and the Asse Volunteer Fire Brigade have been exchanging condolences and updates on DeBondt.
According to one of the Fire Observers, Bttn. Chief Paul Vanlook of the Gavere Fire Department, it’s ironic that the Fire Observers’ next scheduled visit is to the Charleston Fire Department in September.
“I visited them last year during my vacation and talked to the assistant fire chief just two weeks ago [about the visit],” Van Look wrote, adding that the Fire Observers have sent their condolences to the department and hope that the visit still might work out, as they have already purchased their plane tickets and have hotel reservations.
“It’s a tragic incident that happened,” Van Look wrote, “but after some time of reflection and mourning, life has to go on. Let us realize that the profession or the hobby we have is not without danger.”
In their message of condolence to the Charleston Fire Department, the Belgian firefighters wrote: “The brotherhood of firefighters across the world feels your pain at this sad time. We are all trained to help those in need and often put our own lives in peril. The men and women who entered that building to save lives and in turn lost their own will never be forgotten. The scenes of destruction and human tragedy will be etched in our minds forever.”
The fire service is a small world unto itself.