A Family of Firefighters

Kevin 1As many of you know, I was personally devastated by the deaths of the 19 wildland firefighters in Arizona. Joe Woyjeck is a good friend of mine who is a captain on the L.A. County Fire Department and vice president of the L.A. County Fire Museum. His son Kevin, who was just 21, was killed Sunday as a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Kevin very much wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
Here is my piece from Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, about the Woyjecks and how they are symbolic of firefighting families across the country.

A Family of Firefighters
By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal
July 2, 2013

Firefighting creates a kind of informal family, the way cops and soldiers bond in jobs that are more than a job and any given day could be your last. Firefighting is also often a family affair in a literal sense. Go into most any firehouse, and you’re likely to find two or three firefighters with the same last name. They’re brothers, cousins, uncles and, increasingly, sisters, aunts and daughters. And you’ll find fathers and sons.

Kevin Woyjeck’s dream was to join his father, Joe, on the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Joe Woyjeck is the captain of Station 23 in Bellflower, one of the county’s busiest engine companies. Until Sunday, Kevin was a 21-year-old part-time emergency medical technician in L.A. He was also a member of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots wildland crew based in Prescott, Ariz.

Sunday was Kevin’s last day as a firefighter. He and 18 of his fellow crew members were killed while battling a wildfire in Yavapai County, about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. A calamitous wind shift caused the worst U.S. wildland firefighting loss of life in 80 years.

“As a fire captain I looked forward to the day I got to pin a Los Angeles County Firefighter badge on him,” Joe said Monday in an email, too inconsolable to talk on the phone. “Now I have to bury him.”

The Woyjecks’ story is not uncommon in the fire service. Joe Woyjeck grew up in Seal Beach, Calif., and always knew he wanted to be a Los Angeles County firefighter. Like a lot of kids in the 1970s, he watched “Emergency!,” the Jack Webb-produced television show that introduced viewers to L.A. County firefighters and chronicled the early days of paramedicine. In one of those ironic twists of fate, the Woyjecks, through Joe’s work as the vice president and driving force behind the Los Angeles County Fire Museum, became good friends with one of the stars of the TV show, Randolph Mantooth.

Kevin had known the actor since childhood, but even without that bit of glamor Kevin almost certainly would have pursued the job: He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

While he was still in high school, Kevin earned his EMT certification and began working on a private ambulance in L.A. County. Young firefighters often toil at these low-paying jobs for years while they take entrance exams or pay for training to try to improve their chances of joining a full-time department. It’s hard to find a firefighter or EMT who got into it for the money.

Over the past few years, Kevin took fire-science classes at Santa Ana College, got his Wildland Firefighting certification and worked on the Bear Mountain wildland crew in South Dakota for a season. But he eventually came back to California to pursue his dream of joining L.A. County. His father helped him pay his tuition to the El Camino College Fire Academy so Kevin would have his basic firefighting certification and maybe get a job on a part-time department while he waited to test for L.A. County.

Kevin Woyjeck joined the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew three months ago, on April 1. He loved wildland firefighting, one of the most dangerous and lowest-paying jobs in the fire service. And he loved the people he worked with.

“He was a kid who always had a smile on his face, and sleeping in the dirt was no big deal,” his father said.

It is unfathomable that on the day Kevin Woyjeck died, 18 other families received similar heartbreaking news. But the threat of disaster striking is the job’s constant shadow. Even during the Woyjeck family’s darkest moments in the days to come, I doubt that they have any regrets about the career that Kevin chose. Rather, I’m sure that Joe takes some solace in the fact that, in the end, Kevin was doing something he loved—just like his dad.

Mr. Yost, a former firefighter/paramedic in Highwood, Ill., is a volunteer at the West I-10 Volunteer Fire Department in Katy, Texas.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

One Response to A Family of Firefighters

  1. Michael says:

    Great Article Mark. I have been a volunteer firefighter for 17 years. Your article is right on the money. It would be a great tribute to do and article on the other 18 firefighters that died. If you did it one at a time like you did with Kevin that would be the best. I realize that doing an article on all 18 would be rather difficult but it is an idea.

    thanks

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