Finding a writer to report about the Wilmington firefighters who died in the line of duty was not easy. Reporting their story would be a big, daunting task, fraught with challenges. Roger Morris quietly accepted the job. Even as I threatened to be the kind of editor who would drive a writer beyond any reasonable limit to deliver the story that needed to be told, Roger calmly assured me he would do well. Why? In his own words:
“When Mark offered me the assignment to write about firemen Jerry Fickes, Christopher Leach and the events of the day leading up to the fire that would take their lives, it was the kind of reportorial challenge full of nuances any writer would want to be given. Yet as a person, I dreaded knowing that in researching the tribute, I would be intruding, however gently I approached, on the grief of those people closest to the two men. When I was 10, our family home was destroyed by fire, and months later my father suddenly died, so I understood the feelings of shock, sorrow and displacement they were undergoing. And there couldn’t be a worse time for them. Thanksgiving was just days away, with Christmas coming soon after, the most family-driven, emotion-laden times of the year.
“It was with some trepidation that I walked into Jerry Fickes’ firehouse to talk with the men of C Platoon, men who had gone on hundreds of calls through the years with Fickes. I was welcomed inside, and I sat down at a long table with a half-dozen firefighters who only a few weeks earlier had spent time around the same table with Fickes. At first the conversation was awkward and a little strained, then his squad leader, Lt. Burdon Tyson, remembered an incident that was simultaneously warm and humorous. It was like a tap had suddenly opened. Recollections from his comrades came pouring out in a mixture of love, humor and fellowship that somehow brought the spirit of Jerry Fickes alive again. Similar interviews with choked words and melancholy smiles followed in Chris Leach’s firehouse and in the homes of some members of his family. For others, grief was still too fresh and raw, too private to speak about, and that had to be understood and respected.
“Then, just after I had completed the first draft, news came that Ardythe Hope, who had been severely injured in the fire but was in the hospital recovering, had died. Of course, her story needed to be told as well. Days later, after her memorial service had taken place, I sat down with three of the officers who had gone through training with Hope 23 years ago. Their recollections were also ones of love, of dedication and humor recalled, of old tales retold. Some minutes later, as I was getting ready to leave, Battalion Chief Timothy Perkins leaned forward, eyes glistening. ‘I want you to let people understand that Ardy loved helping people,’ he said fervently. ‘Ardy loved helping people.’
“I hope the article, with whatever flaws it will have, shows the humanity and devotion to duty these three firefighters exemplified.”
Thank you, Roger. Thank you, firefighters everywhere. Thanks to your families for the sacrifices they make and the risks they take to share you with us.
And thank you, Ardy, Jerry and Chris. Rest in peace.