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100 Years Of Service!

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"Most of the stories I’ve got, I can’t tell you,” a guy named Joe DeLoach  confided Thursday in the bay of Fire Station 2.

Lucky for the listener, the retired fire lieutenant kept talking anyway, as did dozens of other Jacksonville firefighters who gathered for the Springfield station’s centennial celebration.

Here is one story DeLoach, 64, settled on as being fit to print.

Back in the 1980s, schoolchildren often came for tours of the station at Main and Fourth streets. Tradition dictated that one of the friendly firefighters would show them how to slide down one of the brass poles.

So on that particular day, one of the firefighters geared up in bunker coat, pants and helmet. Then he added another touch.

The screams started before he was halfway down the pole, when the second-graders laid eyes on his gorilla mask. By the time he slid to the floor, the entire class and their teacher had bolted to the middle of Main Street.

“From there on out,” DeLoach said, “when we did it, we closed the door.”

For 100 years those doors have been opening and closing as brave men, and later women, rushed into the city to help whoever needed it.

“For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, those doors have come up and down and we’ve been saving lives,” said former Engine 2 Capt. Billy Sands.  He retired in 2001 after 34 years on the job.

First came the horse-drawn pumpers, trotting alongside street cars. Now their red diesel descendants reign, sirens screaming as they accelerate on the asphalt. With a first-in territory of less than 20 blocks, Station 2 hasn’t been known as a place to get a full night’s sleep.

“We got one of the two-story houses every night,” 85-year-old retired fire Lt. Frank Powell  remembered Thursday.

A firebug was setting blazes with newspaper, he explained of his tenure in the 1970s, and didn’t someone have to pull on his rubber boots and rush into the night to douse the arsonist’s handiwork?

Other alarms required a little more diplomacy, like the time Powell’s crew got a call to help a 500-pound lady who got stuck in a bathtub.

She gave strict orders when the men arrived: “Quit lookin’ at me.”

To this, Powell said: “Lady, we’re not looking at you. We’re going to have to get in there with you.”

So the crew of Engine 2 did, later chalking up the operation as one more successful Springfield rescue.

As they ate burgers and hot dogs and all the fixings, Thursday was a day for Station 2 veterans and current firefighters to connect legends with faces.

“A lot of these people, I’ve heard stories over the years and you’ve never met them,” said Engine 2’s current Capt. Bill Langley.

At 16, he took his first ride on Engine 2. Sands was the captain then and took him under his wing.

“I came from a broken family. He mentored me and fathered me,” Langley explained decades later as the firefighter in charge of the station.

Whatever happened on the streets, inside was a place where the crew went through things together. There were marriages and divorces, births and deaths, promotions and retirements.

“We have been through everything together as a family,” said Training Chief Elly Byrd,  who made the rank of captain at the station. “I was Mama Byrd, mother hen to all.”

For a few hours Thursday, the branches of that family tree grew together, the past and present of Station 2 melting into one crew. From the on-the-job firefighters uniformed in navy blue, to the retirees who found old photos of themselves on the station’s walls, the stories flowed.

“I could tell you about what I found in my locker one day,” retired Battalion Chief Mel DeLoach offered.

It was a Station 2 locker that also had been his father’s locker, long before his son Joe came along to help continue the family’s fire service legacy.

Sure, Chief, said the listener, whose reward was an eyebrow-raising bit of history probably not fit for print.

“Now don’t tell that and don’t write that,” the elder DeLoach said with a gleam in his eyes, the happy architect of yet another confidence in that 100-year-old house of stories.

bridget.murphy@jacksonville.com,
(904) 359-4161

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