By Anne Gagliano
How does one begin to describe in words what it feels like to lose four co-workers, four comrades, four friends, to a fire? All I can truly say is that it changes you. My husband Mike, regrettably, didn’t know Lt. Walter Kilgore, but he knew of him, as his reputation was stellar. Likewise, he had never met FF James Brown, who was newer to the department. He did, however, know Lt. Greg Shoemaker. Mike had only worked with him once, just once, but so instant was their mutual respect for one another that Shoemaker mentioned the possibility of an opening at his station and wondered if Mike was interested. Mike considered it. Now Shoemaker was gone.
From left to right: Rick Gagliano, Mike Gagliano as training captain, Michael Gagliano, JTF, 2006
We both, however, knew FF Randy Terlicker. “Terly-Bird” was in Mike’s recruit class. Anyone who’d ever met Randy never forgot him. Randy was larger than life; he was not only a giant, burly bear of a man, but he was boisterous, jolly—you know the kind—he simply lit up a room with his presence. At Mike’s recruit class graduation BBQ, Randy had grabbed me in a big hug as if he’d known me my whole life and said, “So this is Mikey’s wife!” He was in my heart, he was in everyone’s heart, from the very first moment I met him. Lovable, likeable, and fun—that was Randy. And Randy loved being a firefighter; he was so into it that he’d arrange his bunkers and boots very carefully so he could gear up on the way to rig instead of just putting it all on at the door. When asked why he did this, he’d say, “So I have even more time to get them on correctly before I get to the rig—I’ll be that much more ready to go.” His enthusiasm was legendary, and so was his appetite. He’d clean out the fridge at the station of any or all leftovers, no matter how old they were. On his off-days, he’d visit his classmates at their stations just to stay in touch. Mike loved him—everyone did.
Over the next two days after the fire, Mike went down to the fire scene to join in the gut-wrenching search for Randy’s body through the mountainous, charred piles of debris. He was not with the other three who had already been found. Mike was not there on the third day when at last Randy was located. As his body was carried out on a stretcher, the Mary Pang warehouse fire claimed its fifth victim. FF Gary Medica, Randy’s cousin and close friend, was so distraught that he went into full cardiac arrest. He was revived on scene but was forced into early retirement as a result of the damage done to his heart. Less than two years later, Gary would succumb to a final, fatal heart attack.
Randy had always said that if his brothers ever fell in a fire, he would remove his own pass device, leave it with them, and go get help. He was teased for being so dramatic. But apparently this is exactly what he had done; it is believed that this is why his body was found away from the other three, without his pass device, which was discovered among the others. Randy, the big-hearted, bear of a man, had somehow survived the catastrophic fall into the basement and had summoned enough strength to crawl some distance away in his last, desperate efforts to save them, leaving behind the very device that was meant to have saved him.
How do you describe in words the funerals of such men? Again, all I can say is that they changed us. Randy’s recruit class wanted to do something special for his funeral. Mike offered to write a poem; the class then had it inscribed on a plaque, which they presented to the family. The family loved Mike’s poem so much that they had it inscribed on Randy’s tombstone. Having my husband’s words etched in stone in this way is humbling and haunting, a most painful honor.
As a result of the Mary Pang warehouse fire, the Seattle Fire Department has been changed forever. Fire officials now tell the crews affected of arson threats; before, that did not consistently happen. Communication has drastically improved, as has protective gear—from hoods to thermal imaging cameras. Buildings are now routinely inspected, and building plans are kept on a computer database as well—for all of these deaths would have been avoided if they had known there was a basement in that warehouse.
Seattle firefighters are now given more self-rescue training, and rapid intervention groups were created to get to fallen firefighters more quickly. But the biggest change of all was the establishment of a training facility. One of the settlements from the fallout of lawsuits required that Seattle at last have a proper training facility within the city itself. It took ten years to build. It was not occupied until 2006—the year my husband Mike made captain.
Mike’s first assignment as a captain was to the JTF, or joint training facility. It was a match made in heaven. He hates it when I brag about him in my columns, but too bad—it’s my prerogative—my exclusive right and privilege. Mike was an amazing training captain; the center’s secretary called him “my wild red-headed child” because his enthusiasm and vision for training were so infectious that he energized the division. He won Officer of the Year as a result of his work while he held that position.
I often hear this word when people describe my husband’s work for the fire department and all the extracurricular training he does, and that word is passion. Mike is, indeed, a man of passion—passion for me, for our kids, for his faith, and for the fire department. He pours all that he is into all that he does—but training firefighters takes center stage above all other hobbies or off-duty pursuits. Many have wondered why that is, and now I can tell you why—it’s largely because of that fateful night 18 years ago—the night four friends died. The night fellow classmate Randy died. It has left an indelible mark on Mike’s heart. Casey Philips, fellow “Seattle Guy” and co-author of Air Management for the Fire Service, was also Randy’s recruit classmate, and he, too, picked up the mantle of training alongside Mike as a result.
And it has changed me forever, too. I no longer sit idly by, oblivious to what my husband faces when he heads to work. I can no longer delude myself that he’ll safely return, as he may not. I faced a sobering reality that night so long ago—the reality that a monster lurks beneath the surface of every call, a monster that may choose to strike.
But we keep it all in perspective; with risk comes reward, with sacrifice comes blessing, and there is no greater profession on earth than saving lives. Firefighting is indeed a brotherhood and a sisterhood, with bonds that go deep, painfully deep. But the joy of this profession, the pride and honor of it all, far exceeds the anxiety; and besides, the threat of death makes life all that much more precious and worth fighting for. I believe the four fallen heroes would agree.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 27 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.