Fallen Detroit firefighters honored with memorial wall

Richard Murphy never met his namesake but Murphy bore a broad smile Tuesday as his grandfather was honored for his service as a Detroit firefighter.

Murphy and other family members attended a memorial ceremony to remember the city's fallen firefighters but also to hang plaques bearing their pictures on a wall on the second floor of the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters near downtown Detroit.

Detroit fire fighter Jacob Onouye performs the tradition of the Last Alarm, which includes the tolling of the bell in honor of fire fighters who made the ultimate sacrifice during a Memorial Wall ceremony at Public Safety Headquarters in Detroit.

Murphy's grandfather, also named Richard Murphy, died in 1923 from meningitis that the family suspects he contracted as a result of a cold he caught while working. The firefighter, who was 35, left behind a widow who was six months pregnant and four children, one of which was Richard Murphy's father.

Richard Murphy's name was among the 208 read inside an auditorium where a ceremony was held to honor Detroit's firefighters. Founded in 1818, the city of Detroit's fire department was initially a volunteer corps. Forty-two years later, the Detroit Fire Department became a professional force with paid firefighters.

The department has lost 114 members in the line of duty, said Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones. Michael Lubig, who died Nov. 12, 2018, from a medical emergency after working a 24-hour shift was the most recent casualty, Jones said.

"The community realizes these brave souls lost their lives to protect them," said Jones. "Today we honor and memorialize these brave men and women." 

Detroit City Council member Janee Ayers said she has visited the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters many times and wondered why there was no memorial for fallen firefighters.

  "We get to celebrate their lives. We have so many good men and women on this department that deserved to be immortalized not just in our hearts (but) they need to be able to be seen and to be talked about," said Ayers, who is vice chair of the council's public health and safety committee as well as chair of the council's budget committee.  

Ben Wielechowski, Richard Murphy's great-grandson, told the crowd of about 250  that the memorial has brought about an "emotional connection" to his great-grandfather, who was promoted to lieutenant during his career with the department.

"He was surrounded by a family of firefighters," said Wielechowski. whose grandfather was the child Richard Murphy's wife was pregnant with when he died in 1923

 "If my grandfather and his brothers and sister were alive today, they would be humbled, proud and grateful that their dad is being honored as we as grandchildren and his great-grandchildren are."

Syri Harris, widow of Walt Harris, hands her late husband's portrait on the Detroit Fire Fighters' Memorial Wall, as Walt's son Lt. James Harris (left), a fire investigator for the Detroit Fire Department, looks on. Walt Harris, a 17-year veteran Detroit fire fighter, died fighting an arson fire on November 15, 2008.

For Heather and Nicole Olander, the ceremony brought tears but also "a good remembrance" of their dad, Steven, a second-generation firefighter who died Feb. 7, 2002 from an aneurysm that resulted from injuries he sustained while fighting a hotel fire.

Heather and Nicole Olander stand next to the memorial plaque of their late father, Detroit fire fighter Steven Olander, who died in the line of duty on February 7, 2002.

James Hill Harris, a lieutenant and arson investigator for the department, was also among the family members of fallen firefighters who spoke at the event.

Harris' father, Walt Harris, was killed fighting a 2008 arson fire. Two men were convicted for setting the blaze.

Harris thanked city officials and others for the memorial, a wall of 8" X 10" framed silver portraits of the fallen firefighters.

"We're so grateful ... for the continued act and official remembering of the people who go out every day hoping to come home but don't know if they're going to be able to, but still come to work  with a full heart ready and willing to do whatever's necessary to serve the citizens of the city," he said.


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