Firefighters’ garden to remember

City of Sarnia firefighters are preparing a memorial garden to honour deceased colleagues. From left are; Randy McDonald, Steve Ferguson and Chris Palmer. Glenn Ogilvie

Cathy Dobson 

About a dozen off-duty firefighters spent this week digging a commemorative garden in front of the East Street fire hall.

“It’s important to us that we honour those who have passed away,” said Cpt. Chris Palmer, occupational disease rep for the Sarnia Professional Firefighter’s Association.

Local firefighters had considered a memorial garden with a walkway and an engraved stone monument before, but it wasn’t until retired firefighter Hank Smit passed away this spring that plans really took shape.

His widow approached the association and made a private donation toward a commemorative garden. Her husband died at age 65 from mesothelioma, an occupational disease connected to his 32 years of service with the fire department.

In fact, the majority of the 10 men whose names will be engraved on a large black granite stone died from occupational disease.

The Sarnia department has been around since 1893 and has never lost a firefighter in a structure fire.

“We’ve had close calls but we have very safe work practices,” said Fire Chief John Kingyens.

The first fatality in the line of duty was recorded in 1949 when firefighter Howard McRae was run over by a fire truck. In 1981, Neil Howson suffered a fatal heart attack during a shift.

In2007, after many years of firefighter advocacy, Ontario finally adopted presumptive legislation that allows workers compensation claims for specific occupational diseases when firefighters are exposed to cancer-causing toxins on the job.

That has meant the addition of eight names that will appear on the garden stone on East Street.

There are already monuments in Toronto, Ottawa and the U.S. that recognize fallen firefighters.

“But we have nothing locally and we want families to be able to come sit in this garden and reflect,” Palmer said.

Members of the association are donating their time to dig, plant the garden and lay down paving stones. Several local businesses have given discounts toward the project and most materials are being provided at cost.

Still, the project will cost an estimated $10,000, said Palmer.  Money is coming from private donations and donations from the firefighters’ Local 492.

“If we get additional donations, we want to enhance the design and add lighting,” said Palmer. “We want to do as good a job as we can.”

The garden is expected to be complete by mid September.

Names to be engraved on the stone are:

Howard McRae – 1949

Neil Howson – 1981

Jack Molitor – 1995

George Leader – 1996

William Cannon – 1997

Robert Timms – 2007

Jim Knight – 2007

John D. Virostek – 2010

John W. Duffield – 2011

Hank Smith- 2014