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City honors firefighter who died saving children in Detroit River

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sivad Johnson's parents gave him Heshimu as a middle name, which means honor and respect in Swahili. They said they wanted something befitting a brave warrior. 

Sgt. Sivad Johnson

Years later, family and friends can attest that Johnson, a 26-year veteran of the Detroit Fire Department who died saving three girls from drowning in the Detroit River on Aug. 21, lived up to his meaningful middle name. 

On Monday afternoon, family, friends, firefighters and elected officials gathered at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters near downtown to share tributes and stories of Johnson during a memorial in his honor.

"Our family is uniquely strong and we will get through this together," said Johnson's younger brother, Jamal Johnson. "He's always had my back and a lot of others and now we have the opportunity to have his."

The fire department turned on all their lights on their rigs in honor of Johnson and asked surrounding departments in Michigan and Canada to do the same.

The memories shared by many, including Mayor Mike Duggan and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, told a story of a courageous and respected man. 

"Anyone could spend one day or 1,000 days with him and easily feel like you have a great friend or brother for life," said Roger Harper, a firefighter who worked with Johnson. "Sivad's vast array of skill sets, knowledge, training, experience and unwavering fortitude on any emergency scene will give you assurance in him and yourself."

Though Johnson was not on duty when he decided to save the three girls, it was announced that Johnson's last act of service will now be classified as a line of duty death. 

During the memorial, fire commissioner Eric Jones announced the newest fireboat, one that is faster and equipped with the latest technology to respond quickly and more effectively in searches, will be named after Johnson.

Several names were under consideration for the boat, including Skylar Herbert, a 5-year-old girl who died from COVID-19 complications in Detroit in April. However, Herbert's father and Detroit firefighter Ebbie Herbert said he would understand if Johnson's name was chosen. 

"To Sivad, his sense of duty stemmed from the way he was raised. His sense of duty continued to increase through his 26 years of serving and saving strangers. So when he faced this life or death situation, he chose the life of those children ... he placed himself on duty," Jones said.  

Duggan also announced the Spirit of Detroit award will be given in Johnson's honor to his family. 

'A lot of rip currents'

Michigan State Police dispatchers received a call about 9 p.m. Aug. 21 from a 10-year-old girl saying she had lost her father. 

Troopers, state Department of Natural Resources officers and firefighters responded to the scene near the Detroit Yacht Club.

Johnson and his daughter were walking near the Yacht Club when they heard three young girls screaming for help from the water, said Dave Fornell, deputy commissioner of the Detroit Fire Department, at the time.

Johnson jumped into the river to save the girls. Another person and a nearby boat assisted in the rescue. 

"From the civilian we talked to ... there were a lot of rip currents and the sergeant went out into the water," Fornell said. "One girl was rescued by the civilian and the boat picked up the two other girls."

The incident took nearly 45 minutes. Only after the children were safe with their parents did Johnson's daughter realize he was missing and call 911, authorities said. 

"It is believed the father may have been dragged underwater by the rip current and no one noticed," Michigan State Police said.

Johnson's body was recovered on Aug. 22 after a six-hour search.

More than a brother

Johnson was born in Detroit on Sept. 5, 1970. Johnson became a firefighter in 1994, following in the footsteps of his father, Bill, who was a firefighter for 20 years, and serving alongside brother Jamal, who also became a firefighter.

Johnson earned numerous citations, including the 2017 Detroit Public Safety Foundation Above and Beyond Award's medal of valor. Johnson, who has two daughters, Kyndall, 17, and Hayden, 10, held the rank of fire sergeant at the time of his death.

In the midst of the pandemic, Johnson also made inspiration videos on his YouTube channel, Savid I Am. 

For the past two years, Johnson participated in The Moth in Detroit, a nonprofit organization that hosted story slams. The director of the Moth, Patricia Wheeler, said when Johnson came and told his first story, everyone was captivated.

Johnson also started and owned a clothing line called T.I.M.E., which stands for "this instance means everything." He was creative, illustrating children's books and could be remembered as having "remarkable" drawing skills at the age of 4. 

Besides his years of public service, Johnson was known for adventurous activities, such as convincing Jamal to skydive with him. 

"I've always followed in his footsteps, and I knew that was the right direction to take," Jamal said. "He was many things for many people, but he was more than a brother to me — he was my best friend."

Public safety officials and rank and file honor fallen Detroit fire sergeant Sivad Johnson at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters, Monday, August 31, 2020.