Firefighters to honour two captainsDepartment, paramedics will pay tribute to Lessard and Nichols who died fighting blaze
By ROSS ROMANIUK, SUN MEDIA

Union president Alex Forrest holds a captain's helmet in front of Capt. Harold Lessard's firetruck. Lessard and Capt. Tom Nichols died fighting a house fire in St. Boniface in February 2007. (Brian Donogh, Sun Media)

Sirens, silence and sadness will punctuate a sombre tribute today to two Winnipeg firefighters who lost their lives on the job one year ago tonight.

The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service and Winnipeg Fire Department will mark the deaths of captains Harold Lessard and Tom Nichols, and honour their sacrifices, by raising department flags to half-staff at sunrise at all 32 stations across the city, and leaving them there until sunset.

At 11 a.m., the fire department will pull trucks in front of the stations and loudly remind the city of the loss it experienced on the bitterly cold night of Feb. 4, 2007.

SOUNDING SIRENS

"We're going to be pulling our apparatus out front of the stations and sounding their sirens and activating their emergency lighting for 15 seconds," said Ken Sim, deputy chief of the WFPS, which administers the fire department. "After that, there will be a one-minute period of silence in recognition of Harold and Tom."

The entire fire department, as well as paramedics and everyone from Chief Jim Brennan to all rank and file members, are anticipated to take part in the salute to the dedication of the captains who perished while battling a massive blaze in St. Boniface.

Nichols, 57, and Lessard, 55, were killed by what's been described as a "black fire" -- turbulent, "super-dense" smoke accompanied by extreme heat. It erupted as they fought the inferno in a two-storey house on Place Gabrielle Roy. The fire also severely injured Lionel Crowther, Darcy Funk, Ed Wiebe and Scott Atchison.

The fire -- found later to have started in an attached garage due to careless smoking -- shook the city in the days afterward and brought an outpouring of not only public grief, but gratitude towards emergency responders.

The sounding of sirens will be followed tonight by a far less visible tribute. The families of both deceased captains will gather with city firefighters -- possibly hundreds of the 1,000-member force -- for a private memorial service whose location and time are not being disclosed.

"We're going to have just a short service. Only family and firefighters will be there. There will be no public memorial at all," United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest said, noting the service's tone was requested by the families.

"They have made it very clear to us that they don't want politicians or media there -- only firefighters."

The closed service will stand in sharp contrast with very large, emotional events that were held in the days after the tragedy.

SALUTED, APPLAUDED

After separate funerals for the captains, a memorial service for both of them drew more than 7,000 mourners to MTS Centre 10 days after their deaths. There, Nichols and Lessard were posthumously saluted and applauded by their firefighting brothers and sisters -- including nearly 1,000 who had come from as far as New York, Texas and the Yukon.

The memorial was preceded by a flypast by the Canadian Forces Snowbirds jet team, and by hundreds of Canadian and U.S. firefighters marching to the arena from the Winnipeg Convention Centre.

This morning's tribute will not keep vehicles or crews away from emergencies, Sim said, noting only idle and available units will be used.

"Harold's and Tom's shift is working (today), as well. It's their platoon, if you will, that's on duty," Sim said.

"Our true wish for the day, in recognition of Harold and Tom, is that firefighters reflect and think about their safety. And for those who knew the individuals, to have their memories of them -- and be safe for the day."

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