We cried for three fallen firefighters 20 years ago, and that was only the beginning of the tears.
In Fort Worth, 1999 was the year of grief. Three firefighters died and three more were injured Feb. 15 fighting a church fire in Lake Worth. Then, on Sept. 15, a church shooting left eight adults and teens dead and injured another seven.
Thousands came to stadium memorials as the city wept together for the victims, first at Texas Motor Speedway for the firefighters and then at the TCU football stadium for those lost at Wedgwood Baptist Church.
“It was awful. I was just numb all year,” said Mary Collins. Her husband, Fort Worth fire Lt. Brian Collins, was killed at Precious Faith Temple volunteering for Lake Worth along with Fort Worth fire Eng. Phillip Dean and Sansom Park volunteer Garry Sanders.
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The 2-year-old girl by her side then, Hannah, is now a kindergarten teacher. The baby boy born after his father’s death, Nathan, is a pipeline worker.
“Thank you for still thinking about us,” Mary Collins said.
“Thank you for not forgetting after all these years.”
Once the subject of annual TV and newspaper update stories, the Collins, Dean and Sanders families gathered quietly Feb. 15 for a 20-year memorial dinner at the River Oaks Community Center.
Sansom Park fireighters also hosted a memorial Saturday, dedicating a memorial to Sanders at the fire station.
“We stood together many years ago and vowed that we would never forget,” former Sansom Park firefighter Russell Shelley told the families at the River oaks dinner. He’s now the fire chief in Richland Hills.
“These were three fantastic human beings that we lost way too early,” Shelley said last week.
“I wanted the families to know about the things we learned from Precious Faith — the things that make us a better fire service.”
Firefighters today are less likely to risk a roof collapse, he said, particularly in a structure like Precious Faith. Woirshipers under the longtime pastor, Bro. James C. Terry, built the church by hand in 1969 and used a simple scissor-truss ceiling,
When fire began in the rear and spread to the ceiling, one firefighter actually fell through the collapsing roof and crawled to safety through the pews, according to a detailed study published on fireengineering.com.
The two fire departments leading the atack operated on different radio frequencies and couldn’t communicate. That’s been fixed. And firefighters now “tag” each truck to keep track of any who might be missing, Shelley said.
“We have infrared cameras, different tactics, better studies of each building’s construction,” Shelley said: “There were so any lessons learned from this fire.”
The arson has gone unpunished. It remains one of Tarrant County’s best-known “cold cases.”
Two teenagers were suspects in an investigation by local and federal agents, Tarrant County Fire Marshal Randy Renois said. But nobody has ever faced charges or accusations in criminal or civil court.
Hannah Collins, then a 2-year-old pictured with Mary in dozens of TV and newspaper reports, went on to graduate from the University of North Texas like an older brother, Ryan.
She says she was too young to remember.
“People have just always told me how great a man he was and how great a father he was,” she said.
“I love hearing about my dad.”
The back-to-back tragedies at the Precious Faith and Wedgwood churches united worshipers in grief. Collins’, Dean’s and Sanders’ funerals each filled Birchman Baptist Church, where Collins’ father was a pastor to the senior ministry.
Later, Renea Dean talked with grieving families from Wedgwood. (I’ll write more about that day as Sept. 15 draws close.)
“We’re all doing OK now,” Mary Collins said.
“’I’m just grateful for all the people who have gotten us through 20 years.”
It was an awful start to one of Fort Worth’s most awful years.