From the solemn procession of fire trucks up U.S. Highway 281 to firefighters lining highway overpasses in tribute, the powerful ties that bind firefighters all over the nation were evident Friday as thousands honored fallen firefighter Scott Deem during a Catholic funeral service at Community Bible Church.
Deem, 31, who served with the San Antonio Fire Department for six years, died amid heavy smoke and heat while fighting a large fire at a strip center last week, becoming the first local firefighter to die while fighting a blaze in 20 years. Station 35 – Deem’s station – was the first on the scene. Two other firefighters, one of whom remains in critical condition, also were injured.
Firefighters from all over the country, as far away as Illinois and New York, traveled to San Antonio, lining the entrance to the church in a wall of honor to salute Deem, who is survived by his pregnant wife, Jennifer, and two children: Dakota, 13, and Tyler, 7. The firefighters stood at attention as a procession that included more than 140 fire trucks, 50 motorcycles, and hundreds of San Antonio firefighters passed.
“We’re here for our brother, Scott Deem, and the City of New York sent six of us down to honor and pay respects,” said firefighter Steve Messina, 32, who has served 10 years with the New York City Fire Department. “We lose guys all the time. We actually just lost a member a couple of weeks ago, and departments from all around showed up to where we are, and we just want to pay it forward.
“After Sept. 11, we had so many people from all around come and help out or pay respects, so now anytime a department loses a member we’re going to show up and show our support.”
The sound of drums and bagpipes filled the air as the procession made its way to the church and an American flag waved in the wind, hung between the ladders of two firetrucks. The fire equipment apparatus procession assembled at the Alamodome before making its way up U.S. 281 to Community Bible Church on the city’s Northside for a Mass.
A rendition of “Amazing Grace,” played and sung by musicians and firefighters alike, began the funeral service, which was open to the public. Deem was remembered as a devoted father, courageous first responder, and Dallas Cowboys fan.
“This is a time when our city hurts and mourns, but we come together in support and get through it … life goes on,” SAFD Chaplain Robert Emmitt said. “Firefighters lay their lives down for their friends, and God said the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller led the mourners through a homily inside the packed church, which seats 3,600.
“[Scott] lived a very noble vocation serving society as a firefighter and he has been a beloved husband, father, son, friend, and respected comrade of San Antonio firefighters,” García-Siller said. “God has now called him home – the same god that will help us get through the times of mourning. The Holy Spirit will strengthen us to continue to build upon Scott’s memory and legacy.”
García-Siller prayed for the continued recuperation of firefighters Brad Phipps, who sustained serious burns and is in critical but stable condition at the San Antonio Military Medical Center, and Robert Vazquez, who suffered minor injuries in the blaze.
SAFD Fire Chief Charles Hood called Deem “a true American hero,” and said the fire at Ingram Shopping Center, with “brutal heat and some of the thickest blinding smoke I’ve ever seen,” proved to be the most challenging blaze in his professional career.
“The fire has changed our department permanently … it’s the most heartbreaking days we have experienced in decades,” Hood said. “In the end it was Scott who made the ultimate sacrifice, holding fast to his pledge. The injuries sustained to Phipps and the hospitalization of Vazquez has only magnified the pain of our loss, but I continue to be in awe of the care each one of you has demonstrated … I am very proud to be the Fire Chief of San Antonio, so thank you for what you do.”
Hood said Deem will leave a legacy of commitment, heroism, and service, which will continue to inspire all firefighters as they continue their calling to protect the people of San Antonio.
Mayor Ivy Taylor thanked all the firefighters present and offered condolences to Deem’s wife.
“Our hearts are broken, and our entire community weeps for firefighter Scott Deem,” Taylor said. ” … Deem took an oath to protect us and our property. When we call, they arrive; as we flee, they enter; as we seek safety, they face unseen risks; and Deem sacrificed his own life in an attempt to save others.”
State Sen. Donna Campbell said that part of Deem’s job description meant possibly not coming home to his family and that his work the day of the May 18 fire was a selfless act of valor, done out of duty and honor.
“We walk beside you in your darkest hour,” Campbell told Deem’s wife. “Never doubt in the dark what you learned in the light. … To the men and women of Station 35 and to all who wear the badge, I want to encourage you and thank you for supporting our community and our country with your service and for the love that you carry for your brothers and sisters.”
SAFD firefighter Robert Arranaga praised Deem as a great family man who always showed devotion to his wife and children.
“He will always be our hero and earned his wings doing what he loved best,” Arranaga said. “I remember him coming in as a rookie ready to learn, ready to work. Six years later, he was still our hardest worker. Scott exemplified character, courage, all the things that this department strives to stand for.”
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele said words cannot do justice to the sacrifice Deem made, but that in the depth of that grief there is valor, virtue, and honor.
“There is not a dry eye in San Antonio today,” he said. “… The sorrow and anger we feel is more than we can bear. Let us begin by uncovering the truth of what happened, demanding answers to unanswered questions and make sure a tragedy like this one never happens again, and I know that’s what Chief Hood is going to do.”
At the end of the funeral firefighters participated in “the last alarm” for Deem, a tradition in which a bell is rung to announce a firefighter’s passing and a call is broadcast over the department’s radio systems. Hood ordered a final salute for Deem before the procession left the church and accompanied the family to a private burial.
“Scott will forever be one of our brothers who we lift up as an example of bravery and commitment,” Hood said. “Let’s continue to protect this city with a keen understanding that our calling is without boundaries and our bond to each other is without limits.”
On Thursday evening, a visitation for Deem was held at Porter Loring Mortuary and attended by many firefighters as well as members of the public.
“Scott Deem was my nephew, and he was courageous and brave ever since he was little,” Deem’s uncle Joe Hernandez said during the visitation. “He also had a lot of respect for people. He was a great firefighter. … I’m speechless.”