Fire department mourns loss of chaplain, a month after firefighter dies from COVID-19

Around the South

GAFFNEY, S.C. (WSPA) – South Carolina fire department leaders said they can’t afford to lose any more firefighters, as they mourn the loss of fallen members.

That’s especially the case within the Gaffney Fire Department where two of their members have passed away within the last month. The most recent one was Tuesday, when a chaplain died from a non-COVID related illness.

An empty seat now rests where a man of distinction once sat.

“He was here religiously every Sunday morning,” said Gaffney Fire Chief Jamie Caggiano.

Gaffney Fire Chief Jamie Caggiono said a kitchen table nestled in the fire department has served as a sanctuary of sorts. It’s where Chaplain Joe Brown preached Sunday mornings.

“When you get a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds, or 20 and 30-year-old guys sitting around a fire station, you would think the last thing they would look forward to is Sunday school. But these guys, looked forward to Joe coming Sunday mornings,” Caggiano said.

But this Sunday, won’t be the same.

Brown passed away Tuesday from an illness just 25 days after another member of the Gaffney Fire Department died of COVID-19, Lt. Gary Burris.

“The case of Lt. Burris, we kept getting positive updates, everyone’s spirits were climbing. Then all of a sudden, he passed at the same time, we had another battalion chief in the hospital with the illness. It’s tough,” said Gaffney Fire Battalion Chief, Lee Echols.

Gaffney Fire Battalion Chief Lee Echols said they’re getting through it all by leaning on one another.

“Those kind of moments when we’re all together, inside the building when we can share and laugh about stories, that’s what keeps us moving forward,” Echols said.

Echols said both the men they’ve lost have created a void within the department that will be hard, if not impossible, to fill. He added that deaths and sickness have only made keeping the department fully staffed more difficult.

“Seems that we’re always hiring, we get somebody and we lose somebody and unfortunately, a death isn’t another way we wanted to have an opening but unfortunately, that causes that,” Echols explained.

Across the state of South Carolina, leaders said they’re losing firefighters fast, either leaving the business altogether or getting sick. Adding, they’ve noticed some people being discouraged to apply.

“You’re short-staffed but would you take a job in a fire department in this environment?” said William Pesature, Vice President of the South Carolina Professional Firefighters Association.

At the Gaffney Fire Department, Chief Caggiano said they’re always looking for more helping hands. But the men they’ve lost over the last month are irreplaceable

“I think that person will just show up when it’s time for that person to show up,” Chief Caggiano said.

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