Firefighting is a dangerous profession, but it can also be a family affair. Like military families and those who go into law enforcement, many young firefighters follow in their parents' footsteps. So as a firefighter, when one of your own dies, there's a chance that person may be your son or daughter, mother or father.
Mel Enslow is the retired fire chief of Redlands, CA. His son Kenny was also a firefighter who died in the line of duty in 1990. According to Chief Enslow, Kenny was "20 and 4 days."
How did Kenny pass away?
"He went to the Riverside County Fire Department and they took him immediately. While he was there, he was dispatched to the Recer wildfire. He was manning a hose that led up to the hillside. An oak tree at the top burned and fell, and hit him in the head. Kenny died a day later in the hospital."
Did you ever encourage or discourage Kenny from becoming a firefighter, himself?
"I never encouraged or discouraged him. You do everything you can to help him follow his dream. I had a mixed reaction when I first heard he wanted to become one. I was happy when he wanted to follow in my footsteps, but knowing what the job consists of, I was concerned about his well-being."
Being a fire chief, I'm sure you were proud of your son's service. But as a father, do you wish he never became a firefighter?"If I knew then what I knew now, I would have insisted he do something else. When any holiday comes around, it brings all those feelings to the surface. I see that empty chair at the table, I think of him."
As a firefighter, how do you prepare yourself for tragedy to strike at any time?
"You’re never prepared for it, and when it strikes, your family never expects it. Even when I saw the Twin Towers collapse, I knew exactly what those firefighters were doing. You get this empty feeling thinking about what they were doing at that moment. Firefighters are used to controlling chaos. They are not used to being engulfed by that chaos."
As a fire chief, you've probably had to attend to the deaths of several members of your own company. How much harder is it when that person is your son?
"In the service, you start off by consoling the family members of people who’ve died in fires, and then the families of uniformed members. It’s really tough to do. My older brother was a Baptist preacher, and when we heard my son was in a hospital, my brother was right by my side.
"It’s all you can do to do things to keep things together, seeing your son on life support. After my son died, my brother said, I’d like to preach at his funeral. I don’t know how he did it. So then when I was put into that position, speaking to others whose loved ones passed, I hold onto that and look for inspiration."
What advice would you give to the family members of the 19 firefighters who died in Arizona?
"People will say 'time heals all wounds.' That's not true. It's been all this time since Kenny's passed, and it feels just like yesterday. And so all I just all I can tell them is that time will not heal the wound, but time will allow you to accept it and learn how to deal with it. It will never get better, but you learn to cope."
For more information on how to help the families of fallen firefighters, visit the California Fire Foundation.