Remembering the Final Shift of These Three Wilmington Firefighters

In 2016, a row house fire took the lives of three veteran firefighters. This is the story of their final day.

From left: Lt. Christopher Leach, Sr. Firefighter Jerry Fickes and Sr. Firefighter Ardythe Hope

In the early hours of Sept. 24, 2016, a row house fire in the Canby Park section of Wilmington took the lives of three veteran firefighters. Lt. Christopher Leach, 41, and Sr. Firefighter Jerry Fickes, 51, perished in the blaze. Sr. Firefighter Ardythe Hope, 48, died in the hospital 10 weeks later. Theirs were the first fatalities the department had suffered in 18 years. This is the story of their final day.

*This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Delaware Today.

Jerry Fickes maneuvers his red Nissan Altima through the rush of traffic. Summer has ended, so commuters who would have taken Fridays off to drive to the beach are back on I-95, on the way to work. The sun has not yet risen over Churchman’s Marsh. 

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Fickes and his lieutenant, competitive men of middle age, drive the same route into Wilmington. When they spy each other on the interstate, they will generally see who can safely weave through traffic first to grab what they call Parking Spot No. 1. Spot 1 is at the southwest corner of 22nd and Tatnall, across the street from the fire station in Brandywine Village, where both men work as members of C Platoon of Squad 4.

When Fickes arrives at the lot, the lieutenant’s car is in the parking space. It is a few minutes before 7 a.m.

Ardythe Hope—“Ardy” to everyone—doesn’t have to worry about parking. Also a member of C Platoon, she lives a few blocks from the Engine 5 firehouse at 1814 Gilpin Ave. in the 40 Acres. Many days, the eldest of her three daughters, Aryelle, drops her off at work.

After 23 years with the department, Hope plans to retire at the end of the year. At 48, she looks forward to a second career as a nurse. It sounds corny, Hope knows, but she really does enjoy helping people. Whether it’s at the firehouse or in her neighborhood, Hope takes pride in being someone you can count on.

Across town, in Little Italy, the crew of Station 6 at Third and Union is also preparing for a shift change. The station is a low building that blends into the brick row houses of what is Wilmington’s most-famous eating venue.

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The city, once ringed by chemical and automotive factories that divided its days, nights and weeks into shift work, the fire department’s schedule is unusual. Working out of six firehouses, each with four platoons, firefighters have three full days off, then work a 24-hour shift from 7 a.m. one day until 7 a.m. the next. 

In Fairfax, north of I-95 and east of U.S. 202, Lt. Christopher “Chris” Leach and his fiancee, Kate Maxwell, prepare for another day of work mixed with errands. Kate calls them a “blended” family: his three—Brendan, Abby and Megan—with her Landon and Casey.

Maxwell, who runs a marketing consultancy, will work as usual in her home office. Leach will no doubt find something to build, fix, take apart or put together. Maybe another firefighter will call with a favor to ask, or one of the neighbors might have a problem Leach can tackle. At 41, full of energy, Leach hates not doing anything.

He especially loves his work, so, in a way, he is marking time until 6 p.m., when he will join C Platoon at Engine 6 in Little Italy, his home away from home. 

It is not Leach’s normal shift. A few weeks earlier he had traded a half-day so he could take his team to a firefighters’ softball tournament in Seaford. After a so-so season, Leach’s squad—which he assembled personally and which he pitches for—surprised everyone by finishing second in the state. 

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Such frequent switching of shifts or of half shifts is a fact of life for firefighters. They must work out their vacation schedules a year in advance, so no one minds if he or she is asked to trade shifts so that someone can attend a wedding or a funeral or a daughter’s playoff game, none of which can be anticipated months earlier. In fact, Leach figures he will be asking one of the other officers to switch with him when he and Maxwell set their wedding date. Nonetheless, he knows he’ll catch some crap from the guys of his regular platoon when they show up at the station tomorrow morning.

The routine at the three stations is similar. The firefighters arrive between 6:30 and 7 a.m. in an overlap with the previous shift, or platoon, each designated A, B, C and D. From 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., they catch up on the events of the previous shift. Are there any problems or issues? Is there equipment that needs to be checked, repaired or replaced? At 8 a.m., the roll is called. Officers of the engine companies and the squads read new memos or directives. Issues are discussed, questions asked, jokes made. At 8:30, it’s time to clean.

Each station has a large garage for the trucks. The garages are attached to living and work quarters. Up front, the officers have separate quarters for their beds and private bathrooms. There is a large common area, where the main activities of each shift take place. Part of the area is occupied by a small kitchen, a large rectangular table for eating, meeting and playing cards, and several lounge chairs pointed toward a mounted television. 

In back at Stations 3 and 6, there are bunk rooms with individual cots, bathrooms and exercise equipment rooms outfitted like those at medium-sized hotels. Station 5, where Hope works, is the newest firehouse. It has small, separate sleeping units that provide a degree of privacy. In the past, men’s and women’s sleeping areas were separated by a curtain.

Looney and Lt. Chris Doyle at Station 5. Looney was part of Hope’s training./Photo by Joe del Tufo

There are only a handful of women firefighters in Wilmington, just as there were in 1993. Back then Hope was one of only two women in a class of 27 culled from several hundred applicants. The summer was a roaster—several days topped 100 degrees—but Hope gritted her teeth, relying on mental toughness honed as a champion athlete to pull herself through. Tough love and encouragement from some of the guys, a few old buddies from way back, helped get her through the four months of training.

Except on weekends, there is no breakfast served at the station. Everyone eats at home or catches takeout on the way to work. Fickes knows his eating habits are a source of amusement and puzzlement to his colleagues. An exercise nut, he generally eats healthfully. He goes so far as to chew around the chips in a chocolate chip cookie, but when he brings breakfast from home, it may be something as un-breakfasty as a stale sandwich or half-eaten leftover burger. He’ll eat it cold, doused with barbecue sauce, which he puts on everything. Today it is Jack Daniels BBQ sauce, though any brand will do.

Fickes is a smallish, muscular guy who attacks any job with enthusiasm. Mopping, scouring commodes—Fickes is ready to do whatever is needed. But he never cooks. The guys don’t know why, so Fickes gets grief for the exception. His enthusiasm and contradictions amuse and endear him to the others, keep them guessing.

As he settles into his new neighborhood, Leach is becoming a local legend. For two years, he and Maxwell lived at her place a couple of blocks away. In February last year, they moved into a rent-to-buy, two-story unit with a bedroom for the kids. Leach got to know his new neighbors by clearing their walkways after a snowstorm without being asked and without looking for credit. When his landlord needed someone to install a garage door, Leach told him to save the time and money. “Buy one on Amazon, and I’ll install it myself.”

He lives for firefighting. A Wilmington boy through and through, he attended St. Edmond’s School, then graduated from Salesianum in 1994. By his senior year at Sallies, Leach was a volunteer with the Talleyville Fire Department. His parents were professionals who assumed he would go to college, but after a short stint as an engineering student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, where he also was a volunteer fireman, his parents conceded. 

Leach joined the unit at Claymont in 1997, but his heart was set on working in Wilmington. Friends in high places offered to make calls on his behalf, but he wanted to make it on his own. The third try was the charm. Leach became a Wilmington fireman in 2002.

Along the way, he met another professional, Kelli Zullo, now a lieutenant for the New Castle County Paramedics. They married, then soon had a family of three children.

Fickes, 51, came to both firefighting and Wilmington later in life. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from Washburn University in Kansas, then served in the U.S. Army as an airborne infantry officer. Fickes then entered the insurance business. When AIG moved Fickes and his family to Delaware, he became intrigued by firefighting. Fickes soon volunteered at Aetna Hose, Hook & Ladder Company in Newark. He worked his way up to assistant chief at Aetna before joining the Wilmington department 13 years ago.

The guys at the station rib Fickes relentlessly for being a devoted family man, for not attending squad social events that fall on his days off. He and Laura married in their mid-20s 26 years ago. Their eldest son, Ben, has just left for his freshman year at Northeastern University, where he is in the triathlon club. Because Fickes and Ben train together, the boy’s leaving has left a hole in his routine. Ben has signed up to run the Boston Marathon in spring, so maybe Fickes can switch shifts, then drive up to Boston to watch Ben run. In the meantime, there is still the bright spot of having David home to hang out with. 

Back in the day, Hope was an elite runner in both individual and team events, first at Delcastle Technical High School, then at Howard High School of Technology. As a 10th-grader, she won the 5,000-meter state cross country championship with a time of 19:42.4. 

Hope graduated from Howard in 1986. After starting at Barber-Scotia College, she transferred to the University of Pittsburgh, where she also ran track. Once her running and college days ended, Hope returned to Wilmington to raise her young daughter, Aryelle, now 26. A few years later, she started her career as a firefighter. Hope also has two younger daughters, Alexis and Ardavia, good students at St. Elizabeth High School, where they are also good athletes—track and field, volleyball, basketball—like their mom.

It is a tight-knit family, Hope believes, and she enjoys indulging the girls in her own favorite pastime: travel. Each Christmas, they go somewhere, so she has been thinking about where they will go this year. Maybe Disney World again? Then she will plunge into nursing. The department has been good to her, but she is ready to finish her degree at the University of Delaware and move on. When her schedule permits, Hope works part time at Christiana Care.

Across Wilmington, the morning passes quietly. There are a couple of gas leaks, but nothing serious.

A PA speaker in each firehouse squawks constantly with calls for medical emergencies, accidents, fires. Each station has a geographic area of primary responsibility, though the squads—the rescue experts—may be asked to respond in any of several areas. In general, the main duty of the ladder or engine companies is to put out the fires. There are four members in each platoon. The same dispatches, computer-aided, are also broadcast electronically through watch boxes at the front of the buildings. If a truck or squad needs to respond, a loud alarm sounds throughout the firehouse. Lights in front of the buildings start flashing to alert anyone outside to make way.

Boots stay on the garage floor, beside the doors of the
truck, to speed response times./Photo by Joe del Tufo

The firefighters always leave their boots on the garage floor, beside the doors of the truck. When the alarm sounds, they immediately pull them on, then climb into the truck and begin donning other protective gear. The interval between the alarm and a truck leaving the garage is a mere minute or two. 

Around noon, Hope is glad to see Battalion Chief James Jobes walk through the door of her firehouse, on his periodic rounds of the stations under his command. Jobes is one of several firefighters she grew up with. They were in the same training class, and she thinks of them all as brothers. Her children call them their uncles.

Jobes sits down at the common table, unwraps a sandwich and opens his laptop, then, with one of the other men in C Platoon, begins working out the details of his upcoming retirement. “While you’re in there,” Hope tells him, “you might check mine out as well.”

An alarm will instantly turn the firefighters into serious professionals, but in between, they keep themselves amused. A sense of humor and thick skin are required. If someone leaves a pressed and folded uniform shirt or trousers unguarded, he may find it in the freezer compartment of the company’s fridge, stashed there by Leach. When the unfortunate man comes looking, he will eventually find it frozen stiff as a board. 

Hope may love to help people, but she is no softy. She gives as good as she gets. When one of the guys decided to playfully smash her cookies one day, he immediately found himself wiping milk off his face. Hope loves her cookies. She also doesn’t varnish the truth. She has heard the guys boast about her, “Ardy tells you exactly what she is thinking.”

Fickes, however, is regarded as the master prankster. Others may love the immediate gratification of seeing a joke sprung in front of them, but Fickes likes to detonate time bombs or depth charges, usually ones that take some calculation. 

When a couple of the guys fixing meatloaf for dinner went to the store for a forgotten ingredient, they returned to find the recipe on a can had been scratched out. When they returned to the store to buy a replacement can, another ingredient disappeared. One guy snaps a photo of the recipe, but when he walks away, the shot somehow gets deleted. Three hours later, after the oven has been mysteriously turned off, the meatloaf finally comes out. Fickes munches contentedly—on a piece he has smothered in barbecue sauce.

Afternoons are devoted to training. It is Leach’s favorite part of life in the firehouse. As a lieutenant, he is the training leader, so he regrets having to miss it this afternoon. It is not just another duty for him, but a serious task. He is always seeking creative ways to keep his platoon engaged and sharpen their skills, even getting the tony University & Whist Club to serve as a model laboratory for training in mandatory fire inspections, another duty of the department.

Whether leading a training or fighting a fire, Fickes attacks everything at double time. He is notorious for asking other squad members for their axes or hoses or whatever equipment is in their hands, then immediately taking over the job. The other lieutenant at the firehouse—the one in charge of the ladder truck, the first to enter a blazing building to evaluate the situation—knows that if he pauses for any reason, Fickes will already be on the ladder. He affectionately refers to Fickes as The Squirrel.

When the daily training ends, a couple of the guys in each unit shop for dinner.

On the night of Dec. 17, 2012, Leach and Maxwell became reacquainted. They had known each other since they were 6. She later went to Ursuline, he to Sallies. For a few years, she lived in Arizona with her first husband and their young children. Then she came back to Delaware. Leach called her out of the blue that night and told her he needed some advice. She invited him over. At first they were best friends again. Then things became serious. Leach moved in a year later. “You couldn’t not fall in love with Chris,” Kate tells people. “He’s everybody’s friend.”

Leach loves their big family. The guys in the platoon think the Sallies sticker on his silver F-150 pickup is a proclamation of his own loyalty, but he put it there because Brendan is a Sallies student. Leach tries to attend all the kids’ activities—until he gets called away. 

Leach eats only one meal a day, so Kate asks him a couple of hours before he leaves for the firehouse if he wants dinner now or tomorrow morning. “Later, Babe,” he replies, then heads out the door. Leach drives down U.S. 202 into the city as the daylight starts to fade.

Meanwhile, Fickes is enjoying his dinner with the guys, pleased that Friday is takeout pizza night from that place in Trolley Square. For ages he has eaten with plastic forks, even though the firehouse has metal flatware. It’s another reason for the others to shake their heads. “There goes Jerry,” they say. Fickes continues to use the flimsy fork even when a tine breaks. He replaces it reluctantly.

After dinner there are a variety of activities in the firehouses. There are books to be read, TV to be watched and games to play. Leach visits the exercise room only to poke fun at the men who sweat and grunt on the weight machines and treadmills. Then he retreats to his room to work on his online studies. Though he is working toward a master’s degree, the coursework is much easier than that of his core undergrad classes. Convinced he can move up the department ladder, he studies organizational leadership. Kate is about the only person he has told of his ambition to become the city’s chief. The guys would have a good laugh at that.

Fickes has no problem finding something to do before the squad members are allowed to get into their bunks at 8:30 p.m. He likes to read all sorts of books, and he is the only man in the firehouse who can finish a crossword puzzle. The guys consider him the brainiest among them. He also loves the weight room, though he is kidded about not bothering to change into shorts. He stays in his uniform trousers, just in case. 

Today, everyone is playing suicide ping pong, so the guys speed-rotate positions with each service return. As the lieutenant records a snippet of action on his iPhone, a point is made. Someone yells out, “You can clap on that!”—a rallying cry in the squad—and the firehouse breaks into cheers. Chief Jobes, Fickes’ first boss with the Wilmington squad, sticks his head in to watch for a few minutes, but declines to take up a paddle before he heads home.

Hope decides to read for a while. It’s not a school night, so she’s not worried about her daughters staying up too late. Everybody tells her that her “baby,” Ardavia, is just like her, and that is probably true. Ardavia loves making coffee every day for her mom, and if tonight were Hope’s night off, Ardavia would probably be in Hope’s bedroom, snuggling up to watch a movie on TV.

As the men and women of C Platoon across the city hit the sack, some continue to wear their uniform trousers, the quicker to get to the truck. Others make themselves more at home.

At 10:30, Leach’s phone rings. It is Kate, getting ready for bed. “Good night,” she says. “I love you.” She will call again in the morning or text him. They have their verbal shorthand. “Coffee or sleep?” she will ask. After a night on duty, he’ll usually want coffee and some time to talk.

At 2:54 a.m. on Sept. 24, the alarm suddenly clangs in all three firehouses. There is a house fire on Lakeview Road in Canby Park, not far from the Union Street firehouse. Engine 6 will be on the scene by the time Engine 5 and Squad 4 get there. Within a minute or two of the alarm, the trucks roar out of their stations.

What lies ahead? The firefighters always wonder. Each incident is something of a mystery. Neither dread nor fear has a place here.

Within minutes of the call, the engines arrive at 1927 Lakeview. Smoke and flames are billowing out of the three-story brick townhouse. Onlookers crowd the street.

A horrifying question hangs in the night air: Is anyone trapped inside?

There are seven in the family that owns the home. Some of them, including children, had stayed up late, the adults marking the end of the work week by enjoying beers in the night air. Then, going on 3 a.m., the smell of smoke appears. It is light at first. A neighbor wonders if someone left a cigarette burning. 

Suddenly there is no doubt. A house is on fire. All seven members of the family are rushed into the street. Neighbors go knocking on doors, yelling “fire.” Someone calls 911.

Everyone has been evacuated, but the firefighters do not know this. There is no time to ask questions, to take inventory, to make sure. They face the immediate tasks they face at every major fire: rescue anyone in the building and stop the flames before they spread.

It is the worst of circumstances: a fire when people are sleeping, that is well under way when firefighters arrive, a fire that has started in the basement of a 70-year-old house, threatening the stability of upper floors and the security of the firefighters as they move in below, a fire in a row home, which can spread easily to houses on either side. And there is a large number of bystanders in the street. 

About 15 minutes after they have been startled out of sleep—20 hours after they have come on shift—Fickes, Hope and Leach are inside, looking for anyone who might have been left behind. The heat is intense, and the smoke is dense. At 3:14, only 20 minutes after the fire was reported, one of them radios for help. They have become trapped.

Others immediately attempt to rescue them, but within minutes, the first floor collapses. Leach and Fickes fall with it, into the basement. Despite heroic efforts, they cannot be saved.

In their attempts, Hope and Brad Speakman have also become seriously injured. They are rushed to the burn unit at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Chester, Pa., where they will stay for weeks. Two other firefighters, Terrance Tate and John Cawthray, are taken to Christiana Hospital, treated for less severe injuries, then released.

By first light on Saturday, ashes still float up into the air of Canby Park. The acrid smells from the smoking ruins blanket the neighboring houses and drift over other blocks.

The question among the surviving firefighters of the C platoons who responded and among members of D platoons who relieve them is, what happened?

There are few answers. 

No one is surprised that Jerry, Ardy and Chris were first inside the house, or that Brad tried to save them. It’s who they are, what they do. Their comrades are stunned that the four are dead or fighting for their lives in hospitals. They are stunned, but not surprised.

As the C platoons go off shift, Leach’s truck and Fickes’ car remain at the stations. The scene of the fire is being secured. An investigation into the cause has begun. The task of notifying the four families has taken place. 

On Thursday, a woman who lived in the destroyed building told police she had been drinking and on anti-anxiety medication Saturday morning. It is reported that, angry with the owner of the building, her stepmother, she started the fire.

She is arrested and charged with several crimes. Among them are two counts of first-degree murder.

That night, a viewing is held at Grace Lutheran Church for Sr. Fireman Jerry Fickes. The next morning, a viewing takes place for Lt. Christopher Leach at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, followed by Mass. Funerals for each are held Friday afternoon. The next morning, thousands pay tribute during a joint memorial service at the Chase Center on the Riverfront.

The outlook for Hope is not good. She has been burned over 70 percent of her body, but she is a fighter, and she fights to survive as September turns into October, then November.

With burns covering more than a third of his body, Speakman, a member of Engine 1, which responded from its station at 400 W. Second St., is expected to recover. Six weeks later, he is wheeled out of the hospital. He tells well-wishers that he can’t wait to be with his two sons, 5 and 7 years old. He says he expects to return to work as soon as his healing and rehabilitation have been completed.

Ardythe Hope’s fight ends a month later, on Dec. 1.

During a large public memorial service on Dec. 10 at the Chase Center, she is remembered warmly, sometimes humorously, by family, colleagues and friends.

For those who survive—the families and the firefighters at the scene—the last shift that September for Platoons C will be replayed and replayed during the quiet hours. Yet hopefully, with the passage of time, the good memories of those taken will somehow soften the hurts.

This month’s letter from the editor can be found here.

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