Two Canadian women sat in the front row of the Akron Fire Fighters Memorial Day Service on Thursday even though neither had ever before visited the Rubber City.
They were there to honor their great-uncle Hendrich Van Luttervelt, a man they never met.
Van Luttervelt, a substitute Akron firefighter, died June 27, 1914, while dousing a blaze at the transfer barn of E.W. Forsyth.
The South Akron fire was nearly out when the floorboards of the second floor began to groan, a newspaper reported. Other firefighters escaped, but Van Luttervelt was crushed by timber when the barn collapsed.
Van Luttervelt was the sixth Akron firefighter to die since 1849. But his line-of-duty death had been forgotten over the decades.
Akron firefighter Doug King rediscovered the oversight last year while hanging old photos where he works in Station 8, the East Akron station at Archwood and Kelly avenues.
King went to the Special Collections division at Akron-Summit County Public Library downtown, looking for information about old firetrucks. While there, he found a book of Akron history that mentioned Van Luttervelt’s death.
With the help of librarian Jane Gramlich, King not only pieced together Van Luttervelt’s story, but also found his closest living survivors in Canada and invited them to the annual memorial service.
The women — Linda Brookman of Saskatoon and Marlene Wheeler of Calgary — knew the basics of their great-uncle, who emigrated from Holland through Ellis Island.
Brookman, a former librarian herself, had researched the family tree. About 15 years ago, she called the Akron library and someone there sent her a newspaper clipping about Van Luttervelt’s death.
But visiting Akron made it personal, the women said, and surprisingly emotional.
Akron firefighters met the women when their plane touched down Wednesday and hosted them for a chili dinner.
Duane Crabbs, a former Akron firefighter turned pastor, led much of the memorial.
He said he watched Indians ace Corey Kluber pitch during Wednesday’s devastating loss to the New York Yankees and thought of the pressure that Kluber and other professional athletes face.
“But they’re not heroes,” he said. “They’re celebrities.”
The heroes, Crabbs told the audience, were standing behind them — the Akron firefighters in dress uniform.
“They face down evil, but also face down fear in their own hearts,” he said.
At least 15 Akron firefighters have died in the line of service since 1849, including Van Luttervelt and a second firefighter — Richard G. Goehler — whose 1943 death had also been overlooked in the official record until this year.
Firefighters discovered Goehler had a heart attack at Station 10 while on duty after another firefighter died and his family donated a scrapbook to the department that mentioned Goehler.
King said he’s hunting down leads of other fallen Akron firefighters who may have been overlooked, too. But Thursday wasn’t only about honoring the dead.
Crabbs also praised firefighters’ families — who he said make emotional sacrifices of their own — and firefighters who carry on giving bits of their lives every day.
“A firefighting career always takes its pound of flesh,” he said.
Crabbs said firefighters die a little bit every time they see a heroin overdose or “when they’re up to their elbows in blood at an accident and the people die anyway” or when they face victims of domestic violence or sex assault and can only patch together their bodies, not their hearts or souls.
“While we honor the dead,” Crabbs said, “we’re grateful we have these living amongst us.”
Photo Credit: Church Hill Classics