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Valley comrades grieve for Hotshots

| Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

All firefighters live with the fear that every call could be their last.

They keep that fear – and the memories of those lost – planted deep within.

But a tragedy like the loss of 19 members of the Prescott, Ariz.-based Granite Mountain Hotshots – killed fighting a wildfire – brings back those memories.

Veteran Monongahela firefighter Don Devore is a former assistant chief in the department.

Devore admitted the tragedy took him back to a moment in the spring of 1986, when Gallatin-Sunnyside Volunteer Fire Department junior firefighter John Wayne Tuttle was killed.

A wall at the Halco factory in New Eagle fell on Tuttle during an April 29, 1986, arson.

“Every time you hear something like that, you take a breath and think about it,” Devore said Monday, contemplating the most recent loss of life.

“That's devastating. It's the fear all firemen put up with. Every fire you go to, you never know.

“You have to worry about the families; they lost a loved one. The community loses. These guys are irreplaceable.”

Monessen Municipal Fire Chief Delmar Hepple said he spoke with some fellow firefighters Monday about the tragedy in Arizona.

“It's bad enough when you lose one, but 19?” Hepple said. “To be a leader and to have to deal with something like this, it's unthinkable.

“It makes you think a lot more. Every call is different. Every call has danger. We've dealt with fatal fires, and that takes a toll on you.

Hepple recalled a fire in the mid-1990s that proved fatal for a resident.

“That's stuck with me most of my career,” Hepple said. “Not a day goes by that it doesn't come back to me. You did all you could do, but … .”

Fallowfield Township Fire Chief Anthony Fleming said danger is “something we hope to never see.”

“It makes you think that it could happen to you anytime,” Fleming said. “You could leave your home for an emergency and not come back.”

Fleming said he's never been involved with a fire emergency that cost a fellow firefighter's life. But he did recall a fire years ago when the resident died.

“That sticks with you forever,” Fleming said.

Charleroi Fire Chief Bob Whiten Jr. credited the courage of the elite group of firefighters lost in Arizona.

“Those types of firefighters are a whole other breed,” Whiten said.

The flag at the Charleroi department is flying at half-mast. A message of sympathy for the lost men is posted on the department's message board.

Whiten said the tragic toll is mounting, noting four Houston firefighters killed in a hotel collapse last month and the 12 firefighters who were killed in a massive fertilizer plant explosion near Waco, Texas.

“People don't realize the risk we take, even if it's a minor fire,” Whiten said.

“The older guys say every call is different. No two calls are the same, and you have to prepare for each one. The first thing is protect your guys and the people inside the building. Life safety comes first, then protect the property and buildings.”

Whiten said plastics in building construction add another danger involving smoke inhalation.

“These are the fears every time the whistle blows that we have to deal with,” Whiten said.

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or