ST. ALBANS — Suspended from two ladder firetrucks in radiant late spring sunlight, a giant American flag flapped in the breeze on Saturday afternoon. Below it, a cadre of first responders from across the state and beyond stood in formation, saluting the convoy of emergency vehicles that served as a funeral procession for fallen firefighter Steven Lapierre.
Flags across the entire state of Vermont flew at half-staff, per Gov. Peter Shumlin’s May 13 order, to honor Lapierre, 58, a lifelong Georgia resident and the first in the department’s 64-year history to die in the line of duty.
Hundreds of mourners filed into Collins Perley Sports & Fitness Center in St. Albans to pay their respects to Lapierre, who received full line of duty death honors, including an Honor Guard casket team and apparatus draped in purple and black bunting. Black mourning bands striped the badges of the many first responders who lined up in tribute.
An “old school” firefighter, Lapierre favored the oldest tanker – Engine 2 – in Georgia’s fleet. On Saturday, a St. Albans City antique engine carried his casket, draped in an interment flag that was folded and presented to his children later that day along with his helmet and badge.
Lapierre died May 5 following a heart attack he suffered at a brush fire the week prior. Fellow Georgia firefighters Chief Keith Baker, Michael Baker and Ric Nye attended to Lapierre at the scene, and it was their swift response to his collapse that allowed his family time to say goodbye, Lapierre’s daughter, Wendy Hopkins, told the crowd.
Through tears, Hopkins spoke of a kind, humble man who took comfort in routine and relished a simple life. Lapierre was often found looking for yard sales, working on his farm or puttering around the basement.
His calm demeanor also made him an effective first responder, colleagues reported, noting he never forfeited composure, even in the most taxing circumstances.
After moving out of state several years ago, former Georgia firefighter and department chaplain Pastor Charles Kuthe returned home to help officiate. Kuthe recalled his first structure fire, where Lapierre served as pump operator. Full of nerves, Kuthe took note of Lapierre’s cool, collected manner – one that often belied the difficulty of his work.
“What I was doing was placing my trust in the man with the pump,” Kuthe recalled. “And I did, for two reasons: experience and character. Steve had both.”
A Georgia Fire Dept. member for 47 years, St. Albans City career firefighter for 32 years and Georgia town fire warden for 18 years, Lapierre took great pride in the job that epitomized his life.
“He never looked for any type of repayment or recognition for anything he did,” Hopkins said. “When the scanner rang out with that particular tone, Steve was on the move – no hesitation, no complaints, no second guessing what needed to be done; every day, all day, ready to respond to the call for help.”
Despite his private nature, Hopkins said, Lapierre touched countless lives over his long career.
“His hardworking dedication to duty has given many people a second chance at life,” Lapierre’s son, Kevin, wrote in a eulogy.
Kevin Lapierre remembered his father as patient, loving and proud. He recalled Lapierre teaching him to drive and taking him hunting and fishing, and later, cherishing time with his children when they visited from Texas.
“We have all lost a valuable asset to our life,” Kevin Lapierre wrote. “However, I lost my dad, my mentor and my children’s Papa.”
People in all corners of town felt the impact of Lapierre’s loss, including those privy to his daily morning routine for more than three decades: Grabbing two small coffees in Styrofoam cups – one for each hand – at the Center Market, then taking a drive to the town garage, fire station or municipal building to say hello, all before returning for a refill.
From the podium, Baker held up two Styrofoam cups longtime Center Market owner June Waite gave him to bring to the service.
“We as firefighters read about line of duty deaths,” Baker said. “I’m not sure that we ever think it will happen to us or our department, or even close by. But as we join here today, we know that it can and does.
“Even though Steve left us way too soon,” Baker continued, “I believe he left us doing what he thoroughly enjoyed.”
The service also included a reading of the firefighter’s prayer and tolling of the final bell.
Traditionally, a bell signals the beginning of a shift; each toll sounds an alarm for a call to action and subsequently an alarm’s completion. Three rings, three times in a row is the mournful sound of a firefighter’s end of watch.
There was nary a dry eye in the house when final tones rang out over a pager to sign off Lapierre’s call number for the last time.
“A line of duty death forces you into emotions that you would protect anyone from,” Kuthe said. “He will leave a vacuum in the fire department in a real way … But Steve, we will carry on from here.”