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Thousands pay tribute to fallen firefighters

March 24, 2011, Listowel, Ont. - They will be remembered.

Firefighters and townspeople stood shoulder to shoulder under a spring sun along the streets of this mid-western Ontario town Thursday to honour firefighters Kenneth Rae and Ray Walter, who died on duty last week.

March 24, 2011
By Laura King and Rob Evans

Firefighters came from every corner of Ontario and beyond to honour the pair, who died while searching for possible trapped shoppers in a retail store that caught fire.

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More than 3400 firefighters paid tribute Thursday to fallen firefighters  Ken Rae and Ray Walter, who died in the line of duty. Photo by Rob Evans.  

Thursday’s funeral was private and brought life to a standstill in this small town, about 60 kilometres north of Kitchener in the rich agricultural region beyond the sprawl of urban southern Ontario. The streets were lined with townsfolk watching the impressive procession of firefighters follow their fallen brothers to the service. Men removed their caps; people bowed their heads. Some even saluted as an unseasonably cold March breeze whipped the flags that had been lowered to half staff. Police and paramedics joined the firefighters as they circled Listowel Memorial Arena and filled the tiny parking lot.

The firefighters’ caskets, draped in Canadian flags, were carried into the arena by firefighters for the 90-minute service. Family, friends, local firefighters and dignitaries squeezed into the small venue while other firefighters and media stood outside in the chill of a late-March afternoon. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Listowel Mayor Julie Behrns spoke at the service.

Both volunteer firefighters were remembered as valiant men who loved their families, their communities and the fire service.

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 “I believe Ray left us with a gift,” said Ray Walter’s cousin-in-law Derrick Frooke. “He showed us how to show genuine interest in other lives . . . how to be a hard worker, how to be a loyal and dedicated employee, how to make your community a better place for everyone to live. And finally, how to be a hero.”

North Perth Fire Service Capt. Scott Smith joked that Ken Rae was always the first one to get to the hall. To save on gas, he said, Ken bought the house next door to the fire station.

Rev. George Russell, who officiated the service, said the deaths were the first line-of-duty deaths in Listowel since the town’s police chief was shot responding to a call in 1967. In quiet Listowel, he said, there hadn’t been a fire in the downtown since November 1999.

“Many of us went to watch,” Russell said of last week's fire at the local dollar store. “We stood in conversation wondering what started the fire. Some of us were recalling the last time we were in the dollar store. Little did we realize that three went in but only one came out.

“Rumours began to circulate that two of the firefighters didn’t make it – they had died. We all knew someone . . . Suddenly, St. Patrick’s day 2011 would be come one of Listowel’s darkest days.

“Ken and Ray’s lives were so rich, so fulfilled,” George said. “But their lives were defined by being firefighters. That was a great part of their identity. They knew the risks and they showed up.”

A tearful North Perth Fire Chief Ed Smith read the Firefighter’s Poem. McGuinty said all Ontarians have been touched by firefighters’ sacrifice.

“Ken and Ray loved this community and its plain to see this community loved them,” he said. “Since last Thursday, families across Ontario have come to love them too. We were all touched by Ray’s story – a new husband building a home with his wife, Holly, in a town where he made it a point to do good. And we were all touched by Ken’s story – a true family man , a proud father and grandfather.

“Something tells me that if someone were to praise Ray and Ken for their service they would say they were just doing their duty. There’s a saying that goes, We’re all created equal, but then a few of us become firefighters. The brave men and women who rush in when the rest of us rush are truly heroes.”

Rae, 56, of Atwood, Ont., and Walter, 30, of Listowel, were the fist Canadian firefighters to die in structure fires since 2008, when Mathieu Émond of the Varennes Fire Department in Quebec died in the line of duty while fighting a house fire on March 3. Six days later, on March 9, 18-year-old Andre Manseau, died after the roof of a fire-weakened garage fell on him in Val des Monts, Que.

Rae and Walter had entered the dollar store to search for victims or trapped shoppers. Rea's wife Louise told radio station AM980 last week that the men couldn't be rescued before the roof collapsed. She said her husband was dedicated to his family and the fire department.

"He loved the fire department – that was his life.''

As hockey commentator Don Cherry noted on Coach’s Corner last Saturday, “Brave men. They left too soon.”


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