Firefighters from across Western Pa. pay respects to New Ken chief J. Edward Saliba
New Kensington fire trucks lined Alder Street street Saturday in Lower Burrell.
More from Lower Burrell, Upper Burrell, Arnold, Tarentum, Greensburg and departments throughout and beyond the Alle-Kiski Valley were parked across Freeport Road in a plaza parking lot awaiting their spot in the procession.
There wasn’t a parade. Instead, it was a celebration of a man who devoted more than seven decades to the New Kensington Fire Department.
J. Edward Saliba died Wednesday. He was 89.
His helmet and turnout gear were laid on the back of New Kensington’s Engine 3. The fire truck was draped in black bunting. It was bought in 1970 when Saliba was an assistant chief and had already been with the department 22 years.
Hundreds of firefighters, friends and family of Saliba celebrated his life and spoke about what he meant to New Kensington and the Valley.
“Eddie’s done everything for every fire company in the world. He’s helped everybody out. He’s just a great guy,” said Wayne Harris, retired assistant chief of the Arnold Fire Department.
The turnout Saturday was a testament to the bond firefighters share, Harris said. They stick together.
“They’re our brothers,” said Len Swanger, a retired captain for the Upper Burrell Fire Department.
The men and women inside wore their dress uniforms, wiped away tears and swapped stories about Saliba. They listened to Saliba’s son, Edward Saliba Jr., eulogize his father.
“Growing up, my dad told me you’ve always got to be prepared for life. You never know what’s coming,” Saliba Jr. said.
The Salibas are synonymous with firefighting in New Kensington, and Saliba held the chief’s title until his death. He retired in 2010 and was succeeded by his son, who used the title assistant chief out of respect for his dad.
The family had a grocery store on Victoria Avenue near Station 3. By age 6, that’s where Saliba would be found, the younger Saliba said. By the time he was 10, Saliba was thought of as the mascot of the station, and on Dec. 28, 1948, he officially joined the department.
Harris called Saliba a great mentor who led by example.
Scores of other firefighters from across the state reached out to the family as they grieved. Saliba Jr. said his father’s legacy became evident as word of his death spread on Facebook and he started to receive condolences.
“It’s amazing how many people knew my dad,” he said.
They weren’t just firefighters. They included politicians, state and city officials and people who were customers at the store, which Saliba took over after his father’s unexpected death.
His dad had initially wanted to pursue a career as a machinist but kept on at the store until 2012, Saliba Jr. said. As he helped at the store while growing up, his father told him that what’s said at the store stays at the store, Saliba Jr. said, as city officials and others used it as a gathering place and a lot of government business was settled there.
His dad was the type of person who helped people no matter the cost, and if customers didn’t have the money, he’d cover their bill or let them keep a tab. When they were clearing out the store in 2012, Saliba Jr. said he found the book where he tracked customer tabs and hundreds of dollars hadn’t been collected.
His dad didn’t mind.
“My dad always wanted you to have what you needed,” Saliba Jr. said.
His father cared for his family, his community and the fire service, he said. His affection for the department was evident during Saliba’s service in Army during the Korean War, where he commanded a howitzer battery. The big guns were named mostly after famous leading ladies, stars like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. But Saliba’s howitzer had “New Kensington Fire Department” painted on it, Saliba Jr. said.
When he returned from the service, Saliba remodeled the store, made it into a successful business and kept advancing in his career as a fireman, ultimately becoming chief in 1978.
“My dad did it from his heart,” Saliba Jr. said.
When traveling, he told his son to always seek out other firefighters as they would be ready to help.
“You’re always going to meet good people in the fire department,” his dad told him.
Since Saliba’s death, the family has received support from fellow firefighters.
“You have taken care of our family,” Saliba Jr. told those who mourned at the funeral.
Now 52, he joked he still hasn’t decided what he wants to be when he grows up, but that one thing is certain: He strives to be a fraction of the man his father was.
“Just do your best” was the advice his father gave him before he died.
“I’ll do everything I can do, Dad. Everything I possibly can,” Saliba Jr. said.
Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, [email protected] or via Twitter .