Sacrifice and sorrow
Community pays respects to fallen firefighter John Percin Jr.
John Percin Jr., who died trying to save a small Arizona town from a raging wildfire, has been brought back home to Oregon with honor.
An urn containing the ashes of the 24-year-old West Linn firefighter was flown to Portland Wednesday and then taken in a solemn procession to Lake Oswego.
Participating were members of Percin's family and many firefighters and other emergency responders from across Oregon. The journey went from the Portland International Airport down Interstate 205, where all southbound on-ramps were closed, and Highway 43 and ended at the Lake Oswego fire station on B Avenue and Third Street. Some of the responders represented included Wolf Creek Hotshots, Gresham fire, Portland police and fire, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue and Lake Oswego fire and police. West Linn officers helped control traffic and set up barricades during the procession.
There was a massive turnout of firefighters for the occasion, and many members of the community lined A and B avenues in downtown Lake Oswego. As the vehicle carrying the urn approached, many people held their hands over their hearts and held flowers.
Percin graduated from West Linn High School in 2007 and was involved in several sports, including Catholic Youth Organization basketball. He is the son of Mary and John Percin Sr. of West Linn and brother of Bobby Percin, 26, and Matt Percin, 22.
Percin once belonged to Resurrection Parish in Tualatin, where he was confirmed as a teenager. He also attended Our Lady of the Lake School in Lake Oswego from 1995 to 2000 and later graduated from West Linn High School.
As sad as this day was, there is an underlying story that is even sadder.
"We're going to be looking at having more events like this," said one responder who declined to share his name in a sign of solidarity. "Because of the cutbacks in public service funding there was no backup for the support for the men fighting this fire."
Another participant gave a grim portrait of the fallen firefighters' final day of service.
"They were in a foreign land where there was unbearable heat," he said. "They were emotionally drained."
He reminded the large crowd gathered around him that there would be similar ceremonies in Montana and Illinois for other firefighters killed in action.
"Other families are getting ready to bury their sons," he said. "Please keep them in mind. It will honor all 19 of them."
Thursday, Percin's urn will be on display for a public tribute at the fire station from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Members of the Oregon Fire Service maintained a 24-hour vigil for this occasion.
It is a tradition in the fire service not to leave the side of a deceased firefighter until he or she is put to rest. TVF&R reported that a Phoenix-area fire chief acting as a spokesman in Prescott for the firefighters' families, said, "Since they were discovered, they have never been out of the presence of a brother firefighter. From the time they were taken to the medical examiner in Phoenix, while they're at the medical examiner's office, when they are received in a funeral home there will always be a brother firefighter on site with them until they are interred."
A private funeral mass will be held at Our Lady of the Lake Church on Friday. It is open to family, friends and parishioners.
There will also be a full honors line of duty death memorial service at Rolling Hills Community Church at 3550 SW Borland Road in Tualatin on Saturday at 1 p.m. The approximately one-hour memorial service, which will include service apparatus, honor guards and pipes and drums, is open to the public.
Percin was one of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots killed June 30 while battling the 2,000-acre Yarnell Hill fire. According to press reports, weather conditions caused the direction of the fire to change so rapidly that it trapped the 19 men and resulted in one of the worst disasters in U.S. firefighting history. The tragic death of Percin has stunned firefighters in Oregon.
"It is such a tragedy," said Chief Ed Wilson of the Lake Oswego Fire Department. "These were 19 highly trained wildland experts trying to protect their community."
"So many lives were changed just like that," said Gert Zoutendijk, Lake Oswego fire marshal. "It is just surreal, especially because 19 firefighters lost their lives. Losing one life is bad enough. When you lose someone with local ties it definitely makes you feel that life is precious. They really sacrificed themselves for others."
For Larry Goff, LOFD assistant fire chief, the disaster struck home in a very strong way. Goff is a former firefighter with the Prescott Fire Department in Arizona and also a hotshot with the U.S. Forest Service. Not only is Goff well acquainted with the Prescott area, but the nephew of his best friend was one of the men killed in the wildfire.
"This is pretty emotional for me," Goff said.
Rocky Hanes, president of the Tualatin Valley Firefighters Union, said, "We were so shocked when we first found out that 19 firefighters had died in one single event. Then we found that one of them had ties to West Linn."
Hanes said Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue firefighters wanted to show up in force to honor Percin, from the time the plane carrying the urn of his ashes landed in Portland until the delivery of the urn to Lake Oswego.
"We wanted to show respect to all the people who couldn't be there," Hanes said.
The service and burial was coordinated by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, which served in a similar capacity for the other firefighters killed at Yarnell.