By Steve Tullis
What started as a discussion between three firefighters at a corner bakery about what more could be done for survivors of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) in Illinois has evolved into a powerful, one-day event that provides an uplifting experience for families who have lost so much.
Illinois survivors are spread from one end of the state to another and come from large, career departments like Chicago to very small, rural, all-volunteer departments. Unfortunately what they all have in common is the pain of losing a family member.
We are a group that nobody wants to be a part of, yet the bond we share is very deep. Since 2001, there have been more than 60 LODDs in Illinois. This number is staggering (and unacceptable), especially when you consider how many family members are still struggling with the loss of their firefighter. Our goal was to reach as many Illinois families as we could.
Already in it’s fifth year, this year’s Illinois Survivor’s conference was nothing short of extraordinary. There were 18 people in attendance, two of whom were first-time attendees. The program was kicked off with a brief introduction by Carol Stream Mayor Frank Saverino, followed by a few remarks from Carol Stream Fire Chief Bob Hoff—also an Illinois survivor. Both men took time out of their busy day to welcome the group and express their support and condolences. What followed over the next four hours was far better experienced than could ever be described.
‘Signs from above’ were present every step of the way. For example, the date of the conference was September 7th, which also happened to be the anniversary of two separate LODDs for two of the attendees. What’s more, stories about finding pennies in the most unlikely places throughout the year and years to follow were shared by almost everyone. We discussed a lot during our time together, mostly the challenges we all face with moving forward and how to overcome grief no matter where we are in the process. In my 15 years as a firefighter, I have never seen a greater display of courage.
At 4 p.m., the Carol Stream duty crew and Northern Illinois Honor Guard treated us to a formal ceremony outside, where balloons were released into the sky with a message to a loved-one. Three days later, one of the balloons was found by someone in Bentonville, Virginia. That balloon traveled 719 miles–only 95 miles short of Emmittsberg, Maryland, where the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial is located. The person who found the balloon posted on Facebook the following message:
Found a balloon with a note “in loving memory of Lt. Robert Augustyn” on September 9 by the Shenandoah River in Bentonville, VA. My sister died 8-31-2001; our loved ones are always in our hearts. God Bless.
This little “coincidence” captured the spirit of what our conference is all about—restoring hope and passing it on to anyone who needs it. The day ended with laughs, hugs, and budding relationships that will last a lifetime. The following day, a handful of the Illinois survivors attended the Chicagoland Memorial Golf Tournament, which raises money for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. The golf event supports our conference, and special thanks goes to Lt. Roger Bayne Jr. of the Addison Fire Department and Laura Haiden of the Glenside Fire Protection District for their continued support.
We have already started planning for next year’s conference. Our goal is to reach all of the Illinois survivor families. If you know someone who has experienced an LODD either in their fire department or in your town, please forward them the following information:
Illinois Survivors Conference
Find out more: https://www.facebook.com/groups/620293788142315/