Bells ring for 7 firefighters one last time

Hundreds gather at Capitol for ceremony to honor fire personnel who died in line of duty

rboone@theolympian.comJune 2, 2014 

A massive U.S. flag suspended from two ladder trucks greeted about 500 people who gathered Sunday at the Capitol Campus to remember seven firefighters who died in the line of duty.

The Washington State Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service began on the steps of the Legislative Building, then everyone headed inside to fill the Capitol Rotunda, including uniformed firefighters from throughout the state who lined the second and third floors.

The memorial was filled with ritual: a bagpipe and motorcycle procession; music, including “Amazing Grace”; a moment of silence; and a 21-bell salute.

Gov. Jay Inslee addressed the families who lost a loved one by saying he hopes they “will feel the embrace of 6.5 million Washingtonians.”

“Never forget that they were there for us,” said David Fergus, a commissioner and vice president of the Washington Fire Commissioners Association.

Among those in attendance was Greg Nejmeh, whose brother, Tacoma firefighter Albert Nejmeh, suffered a massive heart attack and died in May 2013 while performing CPR during an aid call. He was 59.

Greg Nejmeh said Sunday’s memorial was beautiful and tasteful and that he was happy to be there. “It was an honor to attend,” he said.

He said that firefighting was just one fascinating chapter in his brother’s life.

His brother, who grew up in north New Jersey, was an avid sailor, including a stint as the captain of folk singer Pete Seeger’s sloop, the Clearwater.

Greg said he received a call from Seeger after his brother died.

His connections in the sailing world brought Albert Nejmeh to Tacoma in the early 1990s, where he became a crew member and later a captain of the Adventuress, the historic schooner that sails Puget Sound waters offering maritime and environmental education programs.

The schooner docked near a waterfront fire station in Tacoma, he said.

Being the inquisitive person that Nejmeh was, one thing led to another and before long he was encouraged to apply for an opening with the Fire Department, becoming a firefighter at 47, his brother said.

“It wasn’t a vocation, it was an avocation,” Greg Nejmeh said. “He loved every aspect of it.”

Also remembered on Sunday:

 • USDA Forest Service contractor and crew chief Zachary Jake VanderGriend, who died in 2008 as a crewmember of a firefighting tanker jet that crashed shortly after takeoff on Sept. 1, 2008, in Reno, Nevada. VanderGriend, who was 25 when he died, worked briefly at Tacoma Narrows Airport before moving to Montana just months before his death. He was born in Sunnyside and also had lived in Yakima, Lynden and Spokane.

 • Seattle Fire Department firefighter Jess Hernandez, who died of work-related cancer in March 2013.

 • Kent Fire Department engineer Robert Schmidt, who died in April 2013 of work-related brain cancer.

 • Spokane Fire Department fire equipment operator John Knighten, who battled work-related multiple myeloma for three years before his death in July 2013.

 • Clark County Fire District No. 6 firefighter Robert Hamel, who died of work-related non-Hodgkin lymphoma in July 2013.

 • Vancouver Fire Department Capt. Carl Murray, who died of work-related lung cancer in July 2013.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403 rboone@theolympian.com

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