Sewell Fire Company
Mantua Township, Gloucester County, New Jersey
Gloucester County Times Editorial, March 27, 2001
Volunteers Carry On Jim Heenan's Battle
When it's a volunteer, it hurts just a little more.
When it's a volunteer like James Heenan, who died Sunday, it hurts a whole lot more.
Anyone who puts himself or herself in a position so the term "in the line of duty" can be attached to their name is owed a debt of gratitude, from all of us, every day. Every police officer, every emergency medical technician, every firefighter, they all put their lives on the line for all of us, to use an overworked phrase.
But Heenan, a Verga Fire Co, veteran for 18 years, was not paid for what he did, and that makes his life, his bravery, and his memory, even more special.
Heenan was critically burned on New Year's Day, fighting a fire in an Atkins Avenue residence in West Deptford Township (NJ). He thought people may have been trapped inside, so he went back into the burning structure. The floor gave way, and Heenan was sent tumbling into the basement, covered with burning debris.
Just about everyone in the Gloucester County area knows that story by now. The outpouring of help - blood drives, fund-raisers, prayers - was unprecedented. Yet everyone who was pulling for the 37-year-old firefighter had to know, in the back of their minds, that this story might end the way it did at 5:31 p.m. Sunday, in Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Upland, Pa.
But Heenan's battle is not really over. It will continue to serve as an example for fire companies that can't find enough volunteers to do what he was willing to do, the routine along with the heroic.
It can't be emphasized enough that Jim Heenan walked into a burning house at a time when many of us were winding down from New Year's Eve celebrations, on a day that most of us would spend in front of the tube watching bowl games or the Mummers Parade.
It can't be emphasized enough that Jim Heenan did this at an age - 37 - when so many of us are so involved with our young families that we leave the volunteering to others, even if we were "joiners" in the past. For that, we also have to thank his wife, Pat, and his sons, Jim, 16, and Mike, 14. Somehow, extending just our sympathy to his family is not enough.
Jim Heenan's battle is not over if it makes us all think a little more about how we can prevent fires like the one on New Year's Day. His battle is not over if it helps us come up with a few more ways to make it safer for anyone "in the line of duty" to perform that duty. And it is not over if it makes all of us have a little more respect for volunteers of all types, the kind of respect that Jim Heenan earned and deserved.
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