State fire commissioner Ed Mann and Pine Township firefighters Cpt. Dan Thompson, John Nicklin and Jim Thompson lead a procession of more than 400 firefighters to Cunningham Funeral Home, Grove City, to honor deceased Pine firefighter Bradley P. Holmes, 21, Friday evening. Representatives had a firefighters' memorial after the procession.

Firefighters started showing up in strong numbers in Grove City on Friday night to honor Bradley Paul Holmes.

There was standing-room only at the 380-seat Fellowship Community Church on North Broad Street, where men and women gathered from local stations – and others like Hermitage, Pittsburgh, Green Tree and Cranberry Township, Butler County – to organize a processional.

“Thank-you for all your support,” said Pine Township Engine Company Cpt. Dan Thompson. “I didn’t know it would be like this.”

Pine also never dreamed of losing one of its own. Holmes, 21, died at 5:15 a.m. March 5 in UMPC Mercy, Pittsburgh, from burns he suffered in a house fire at 132 Garden Ave. on Feb. 29, which took the life of Patricia Andrews-Smith, 40.

Holmes’ teammate, Lt. Scott King, also suffered burns, but was treated and released from Mercy that day.

“In 7è years, I’ve been to 70-plus funerals. They never get easier,” said Ed Mann, Pennsylvania fire commissioner, who spoke to the firefighters.

“There’s nothing I can say to make it any less painful for anyone who knew Brad,” he said. “If you really want to pay respect, take a step back the next few days, remember how this feels, and at the end of the next call, go home.”

Mann currently has an initiative to reduce the number of line-duty deaths in the state under the “Everybody Goes Home” program.

Todd Wood, director of Grove City Emergency Management and borough fireman, organized the 400-plus firefighters for the procession from the church, across the Shawn A. Graham Veterans Memorial Bridge on Chestnut Street to Cunningham Funeral Home on Bessemer Avenue, where calling hours were held on Friday for Holmes.

With the exception of Pine, Wood instructed the stations to delegate representatives to pay respects to the Holmes family, rather than all 400 going inside the funeral home. It was “already flooded over there,” he said.

After the processional, the representatives and Pine company gave a fireman’s memorial service at 7 p.m.

Neighbors came out of their homes on the cold night to watch the parade of firefighters.

Bill and Erika Caulk, Bessemer Avenue residents, have a son and daughter-in-law, David and Jennie Caulk, who are members of the Pine fire team.

“We just wanted to support them,” Mrs. Caulk said. “It’s hard, but they appreciate all the support from the community.”

Her husband added that Holmes is a model.

“Some of the kids today don’t know what heroes are,” Mr. Caulk said. “They think some of these rock singers are, but they aren’t.”

Ted Dittrich choked up, remembering friends he lost while out to sea in the Navy. He didn’t fight in Vietnam, but served during that era.

He walked from his home on Winfield Drive to watch the processional.

“I can identify with some of this,” Dittrich said. “It’s the last chance you get to say, ‘Thank-you.’”

Don and Celeste Bonanni walked with their young kids, Dominic and Alexis, from Opre Avenue.

“It’s a community thing that happened, and we’re part of this community,” Mr. Bonanni said.

“If we need help, that’s who’s going to save us,” his wife added. “(Holmes) did his job no matter what the circumstances. He did his best.”

“It’s sad because someone died,” said Alexis, 8, but she believed that if Holmes were still alive, he would be happy to see the turnout.

Among those coming farthest were five members from Green Tree, next to Pittsburgh, including Chief Dan Walsh and his son, Patrick.

The younger Walsh attended Slippery Rock University with Holmes and served the borough’s fire service, which gave him opportunity to work with Holmes on calls and in training.

Having generations of blood relatives within the firefighting family is common. Holmes’ father, Joseph, is assistant chief at Pine, and his brother, Christopher, is chief.

“It’s the scariest part, realizing you have the potential of losing a son,” Dan Walsh said. “It’s a reality check.” In his 35 years with Green Tree, no firefighter has ever died, although one lost a leg.

Dan and Randy Short grew up around the Green Tree station with their dad, similar to Holmes.

“Dad had 53 years in the service when he died,” said Dan Short, whose 10-year-old sometimes goes on calls with him “when there’s no babysitter.”

79-year-old Bill Carlisle, who also came to the Holmes viewing, has 52 years with Green Tree. He can’t fight fires any longer, but is still part of the team – with titles as treasurer and babysitter.

“These are all my sons,” he said.

David Harstine, pastor of Fellowship, passed out coffee with church members to the long line of people waiting in the cold for Holmes’ viewing.

“It’s a small way (to serve) ... those who serve selflessly all year long,” he said.

“It’s very moving to see men and women in uniform standing together in such a somber location. To see such a brotherhood stand in the cold and come from far away.”

“We didn’t know (Brad). We don’t need to know him,” said Bruce Hezlep, director of the Cranberry Township station.

“This is to show respect for our brotherhood,” added John Kontros, fire police with Cranberry. “It’s as simple as that.”

Five men came from Cranberry to the viewing. Among other stations, it has filled in for Pine for calls and staffed the station during Holmes’ wake.

Recommended for you