Hundreds gather to remember fallen firefighters

Friends and family gathered Sunday in Wenatchee to remember the lives of three firefighters who died battling the Okanogan Complex Fire on August 19.

The memorial service was overseen by Chaplain Pat Ellis with the Kent Fire and Police Department. The memorial service was a time to remember and honor the three firefighters and the lives they lived.

Firefighting tools known as Pulaskis were brought forward to symbolize wildland firefighting before U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell came forward to speak.

"There are no words that will that will take away the loss and hurt but we will always honor Tom, Richard and Andrew," Tidwell said. "We will never, never forget."

Following Tidwell's remarks, Mike Williams, for the Okanogan Wenatchee forest took to the podium. 

"They were three men who chose to make a difference every day -- to live lives that mattered," Williams said.

Following his speech, there was a wreath laying ceremony before friends and family members shared stories and memories of the three firefighters.

Tom Zbyszewski's mother, Jennifer, thanked the community for their kindness and asked those assembled to carry on her 20-year-old son's legacy and have kind words for everyone they meet. Tom's father, Richard, read the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling. He closed his reading with a quiet, "I'm going to miss Tom."

Rick Wheeler's close friends and fellow firefighters shared their memories (and nicknames) of Rick. He was known as "Wheels," "Wheelhouse," and "Slick Rick" just to name a few.

Walter Escobar said of Wheeler, "You and your family will always be a part of Wenatchee River. Especially crew 74."

Andrew Zajac's mother Mary read statements from the Zajac family including his wife Jennifer. The couple was married in November. Jennifer wrote, "Just under a year ago we vowed 'Till death do us part.' I just never imagined it would be so soon."

Mary Zajac, in her own statement, thanked the firefighters at the service, and the general public. She spoke about what it's like to see a home standing amid burned lands.

"It looks like divine intervention, but it's not. It is the product of human courage, sweat, and now tears."

She closed her remarks with a call from Jennifer Zajac, urging firefighters to stay safe. "Look up, look down, and look after each other."

The Honor Guard brought the ceremony to a close by presenting each family with Pulaski tools, statues and Forest Service flags. Taps was played, followed by "Amazing Grace." Matt Desimone closed with the traditional Firefighter's Prayer.

The bell ringing ceremony known as the Final Alarm closed the service. The firefighting tradition was explained by Chaplain Ellis.

"When the fire was out, the bell rang three times to signify the end," he said. "The bell rings three times in memory and in honor of their service."

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