Pittsburgh firefighter's sacrifice in 2004 built bond in Hill District
As Stephanie Stefanakis stood in the front row, leaning on family and wiping away tears, many in Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday stopped to comfort her, shake hands or hug as they passed.
The Hill District church and Pittsburgh's firefighting community remain linked 10 years since Stefanakis' husband, Richard, and Battalion Chief Charles Brace died fighting the fire that destroyed the church's former building. The church had a special memorial with nearly 300 in the crowd, including Mayor Bill Peduto, other city leaders and 16 uniformed firefighters.
Stephanie Stefanakis, trembling as she spoke at the service on the site where her husband died on March 13, 2004, said it's been a difficult 10 years. Her only son died in a shooting the next year, and she's haunted by the fact that her husband died fighting a fire even after the building was beyond repair. Sunday's service was important to heal some of that grief, she said.
“It helps that people still care, that I know people still care, because I'm by myself,” she said. “It is wonderful. It's uplifting.”
The fire caused the church's bell tower to collapse, trapping many firefighters in the rubble. That killed the two men and injured 30 other firefighters. The Ebenezer congregation rebuilt, opening the new church in 2006 with a special memorial on the ground floor, including the victims' boots, helmets and other equipment.
Although the event left scars, it built a bond between the church and the city's firefighters, Peduto told the crowd in impromptu remarks. Relationships between government and community groups like that are essential to improving the city, he said.
“Firefighters stand up for one another, not just on the job, but all the time. And that's a lot like Ebenezer,” he said. “It's beautiful to be here today to see two institutions come together.”
A seven-person color guard started the service, the first holding an axe and the last a sword, with five flag bearers in between. Two bagpipers marched through later, and Stefanakis and Valerie Mion, representing the Brace family, lit candles in the front of the church. Firefighter Inenell Leonard, a 35-year veteran who helped battle the 2004 fire, sang “Amazing Grace.”
“It puts a lump in your throat. Your mind flashes back to every moment,” Leonard said, adding that it's difficult for him even to drive past the church. “I'm glad things have grown the way they have, that we're together, and we can move on.”
The Rev. Vincent K. Campbell asked parishioners to make sacrifices for others as firefighters did for the church. That kind of self-denial is an essential part of the biblical message about serving others, he said.
“Every natural inclination of the heart, everything they know and feel had to be denied for them to go into a burning building,” he said. “This is the type of denial Jesus is talking about.”
Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.