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Detroit fire captain, 57, dies after coronavirus complications

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Captain Franklin Williams Jr., a 31-year veteran of the Detroit Fire Department, died from heart issues Wednesday after falling ill weeks ago with the coronavirus.

Williams is the first Detroit firefighter to die after contracting COVID-19.

Williams, 57, could have retired at any time given his years of service, said Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones. But he wanted to stay on until he was 60, said his wife Shanita Williams.

Williams

The fire department is battling the fallout of a virus that has infected 52 members of the department and has about 130 of them quarantined. 

"There was no way he was walking off the battlefield," said Jones. 

"Everyone is looking for our department to be the calming force," he said. "When you see those red rigs or those ambulances pull up, you know that trained professionals are about to help you. They're trained, they're compassionate and they're going to do whatever they can to get you the best care possible."

Williams, his wife said, was something of a comedian. Shanita's last name was already Williams when they met at a tailgate on Oct. 17, 2004, before the Detroit Lions took on the Green Bay Packers.

"I always had two (season) tickets and said I was going to get married someday," Shanita recalled. 

They met, and clicked, and two days later he called.

When the two agreed to be married, Williams looked at his fiancee earnestly and told her he wouldn't make her choose between last names, he'd let her hyphenate it. She would be Shanita Williams-Williams.

Franklin and Shanita Williams.

A month short of a decade from their wedding date, that story still makes her laugh.

Less funny was at the wedding, when Williams dawdled in saying "I do," giving Shanita and everyone watching a slight scare. 

Williams had five sons and two stepdaughters. When discussing the long pause before "I do," one of his sons joked that they didn't know what was happening, but that if they saw their dad run, they were going to follow suit.

But he never did run, not even when the virus began to ravage Michigan last month, hitting Wayne County — and Detroit within it — very hard, killing almost 1,000 people statewide since.

More:Metro Detroit copes with coronavirus

Being a first responder in an era of widespread communicable disease "requires extreme bravery," Jones said.

"We really don't know what we don't know about this virus," Jones said. "But the firefighters and the paramedic, the police officers, the nurses, the doctors are all stepping up, and Detroiters are abiding by the (social distancing) guidelines for the most part."  

Williams' character wouldn't have let him leave at the department's time of need, said Jones, his boss since 2015. And so he kept working, as long as he could.

The department's some 800 firefighters and 350 EMT technicians "understand the gravity of this moment in history," Jones said.

Williams fell ill March 24, a day after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a "stay at home" order prohibiting "non-essential" businesses from opening. He would never recover.

"He felt something wasn't right," Shanita Williams said, and moved into a guest room. 

Williams was not used to seeing her husband ill or without an appetite. When his breathing became challenged on Sunday, she took him from the couple's Belleville home to the hospital.

Because hospitals have tightened visits during the virus crisis, that would be that last time she saw him in person.

Williams is working to make funeral arrangements, but as of Thursday still hadn't been able to see her husband. A lieutenant at the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, Williams works at its division 1 facility, and plans to retire on June 1.

Once they were both retired, the plan had been to ramp up their travel from the two trips a year they'd been taking. Anywhere they went was fine with Williams, so long as he was able to golf there.

In Williams' death, Detroit has lost another experienced public servant, the fifth in public safety in Wayne County to die after contracting the virus, along with two Detroit Police Department staffers and two from the sheriff's office. 

His family, meanwhile, loses a husband, son, father and grandfather who, in a few short years, would have retired and been free to joke and travel and play golf to his heart's content. He had just got swimming lessons for his two grandsons and was looking forward to traveling with them and opening their eyes to the world, Williams said.

When it comes to moving on without her partner, says Williams, "It's like a bad sci-fi movie."