From this day forward, when city firefighters pass down the hall leading into the aparatus bay to answer an alarm for a fire or medical call, they will pass a picture of Capt. Loren J. Michel, the only city firefighter to ever die in the line of duty.
The memorial to Michel also contains his badge, ID and the page from the logbook of his final call Aug. 5, 1965.
Looking over the mementos of his late friend, Bill Benedict stared at each item intently. It was a sad, sad day, the day he died, Benedict said.
"A lot of sadness that day," he said. "I was there that day. I was driving the aerial truck. I was on the top floor ventilating the roof. After I cut a hole in the roof, I nearly passed out with the gas. It was bad, bad gas."
The structure fire was reported at 402 Bank St. and a resident indicated her two children might still be inside. As acting chief that day, Michel led his crew into the house, kicking down the front door. As firefighters entered ahead of him, a fireball of flames exploded out of the house and Michel apparently inhaled the flames, burning his lungs. His face was also burned.
Michel was not wearing an air pack and staggered out of the house to get some oxygen. Wilbur Hinz, president of the Western New York Volunteer Firemen's Association, helped Michel walk to the truck.
Hinz drove Michel to Genesee Memorial Hospital.
Michel told Hinz to go to his house and tell his wife and daughter that he would be OK. By the time Hinz returned to ER, Michel was dead.
The service today, attended by members of Michel's family, included prayer and remembrances. A plaque was dedicated that will be placed on the outside of the fire hall and a wreath was lain at the grave of Michel in Grandview Cemetery.
The service was intended to recall the kind of man Michel was and his dedication to firefighting. He was an instructor, instrumental in creating the mutual aid and emergency management coordination that is still in place today.
He served the city for 24 years and was an honorary member of every volunteer fire company in the county.
"Capt. Michel's death was a devastating loss to his family, his community and the entire fire service," said Adam Palumbo, president of Local 896.
Palumbo and firefighter Mike Dorgan took the lead in organizing today's service.
Leonard Smatak, a firefighter and son-in-law of Michel's, recalled how this fallen hero devoted his life to serving others.
He shared one story of a structure fire that started with a boy who accidently lit his sister's bed on fire. The alarm was sounded quickly and the house was saved, but the boy was nowhere in sight when it was all over. Firefighters and police began a neighborhood search, but Michel said he would handle matters.
He figured the boy was hiding in the house, and he was right. Soon he and the boy came walking out of the house hand-in-hand. Michel sat the boy on the front seat of a fire truck and had a private chat with him. Smatak said that to this day, that boy, now a man, credits Michel with changing his life.
"To truly honor Capt. Michel in all that you do, do it right the first time, take no shortcuts, do it by the numbers, just as you were all trained to do," Smatak said.
Standing before the memorial, all city firefighters will pass from this day forward. Benedict said he'll never forget his friend or that tragic day.
"He was a nice man, a good leader," Benedict said. "Everybody liked him. He was well respected. We all miss him."
Firefighter Greg Ireland presents the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the service.
Firefighter and Local 896 President Adam Palumbo with opening remarks.
City Fire Chief Jim Maxwell.
Firefighter Ryan Hendershott sounds the final bells for Capt. Michel.
Michael Szustak and Michel Lujan
Retired firefighter, Capt. Mike Mullen.
The service pin, as shown above, is the same one city firefighters will wear from now on on their Class A uniforms to honor Capt. Michel and the date of his death.
The laying of the wreath at Grandview Cemetery.
Four of the county's volunteer firefighters pay tribute to Capt. Michel.