Fallen Firefighters Remembered in Helmet Blessing Ceremony


It's been 10 years since the deaths of two firefighters forever changed the community of Wood River. Now, a decade later, their deaths have changed firefighting in Nebraska.
More than 100 helmets paraded passed firefighter gear that will never be used again on Saturday. Each would receive a blessing of protection at a ceremony at Wood River High School.
"This is not about the sadness from 10 years ago. This is a good thing and it only makes us move forward a little more," said Melissa Woitalewicz, who lost her husband Ken.
He and Bob Heminger were trying to save a woman trapped in a house fire on February 14, 2004, when the roof collapsed. None of them survived.
Captain Heminger, 39, died the next day, leaving behind a wife and two young children.
Captain Woitalewicz, 38, survived three days before passing away. He left behind a wife and two young boys.
Two of those sons - one from each family - are now firefighters for Wood River themselves.
"We walk into the station every day and their gear hangs on the wall just a reminder of the hazards involved in our job," said Chief Todd King. King said he has a kept a coin in his pocket since that day, reminding of him of his friends constantly.
"There's so much that Bob missed," said his wife Eva Heminger. "I know he's still up there watching and he knows what's going on; and that's what gets us through."
A sign that they were watching came during a wreath laying ceremony that followed the helmet blessing Saturday.
Balloons were released at the Wood River Cemetery, but many of them popped on a nearby tree.
"Balloons were not his favorite," Woitalewicz said of her husband, laughing. "When they started popping, I [said] that was our warning that he did not want the balloons."
Firefighters shared their own stories of Ken and Bob. They said some good has come from their deaths.
Since, firefighters across the state have stepped up training and not just to protect themselves physically.
"To lose a loss like that is truly like losing a family member and then to have to go back into a similar situation that we lost those firefighters in is very stressful," said King. "That's something that's part of our training."
Heminger and Woitalewicz believe that training is saving lives.
Since the 2004 accident, there has only been one line of duty firefighter death in Nebraska. Wymore volunteer firefighter Jeremy Wach, 31, died in 2007.
Heminger and Woitalewicz were there to comfort the family as part of a new Line of Death Response Team that Wood River helped create.
"Families really need someone to talk to that's been there and so that's what we're on the team for," said Heminger.
For those who can't open up, a comfort dog program was also started because of the accident 10 years ago.
"We're big and rough and tough; and for the grieving to let your emotions go once in a while is very hard," said King. "To have something like that - because who doesn't love a dog - come into your community or into your department to help you release and start the grieving process is very beneficial."
Heminger and her daughter, Lindsay agree that these services would have made a world of difference after their loss. Instead, Eva said her family didn't talk to another survivor until more than a year later.
Woitalewicz said that network is key, but it can't stop the grieving.
"You don't get over it. It's not something that just goes away," she said. "Things like this [ceremony] are a huge step forward. This is healing to me."
Woitalewicz hopes to help other survivors plan similar ceremonies.
For more on the Nebraska Serious Injury and Line of Duty Death Response Team, click here.
To learn more about Moses the Comfort Dog, click here.