Thousands mourn fallen firefighters in Winnipeg

Thousands of people watched a pipe and drum band lead a sombre procession of uniformed officers onto the floor of a Winnipeg arena Wednesday morning at a memorial service for two firefighters killed on duty.

Thousands of people watcheda pipe and drum band lead a sombre procession of uniformed officers onto the floor of a Winnipeg arenaon Wednesday at a memorial service for two firefighters killed on duty.

More than 2,000 North American firefighters, paramedics, police and soldiers in full dress uniform marchedthrough downtown Winnipeg and into the MTS Centreduring the public servicehonouring Captains Harold Lessard and Tom Nichols.

Manitoba Lt.-Gov. John Harvard hailed the "brave and dedicated men" for their decades of public service.Nichols had 32 years of experience with the fire service, while Lessard had 31.

'I want you to know, you would have made an excellent grandpa.'— Kimberley Adams,daughter of Tom Nichols

Harvard called on attendees to honour the lives of the fallen firefighters through personal acts of volunteerism and citizenship.

"Let us all show through our actions that we remember the lives and actions of Winnipeg's heroes," he said.

Provencher MP Vic Toews read a statement on behalf of Prime Minister Stephen Harper thatnotedHarper's "tremendous respect for the bravery and selflessness of firefighters."

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and NDP Leader Jack Layton also were in attendance.

Mayor pays tribute

Manitoba Labour Minister Nancy Allan represented Premier Gary Doer, who could not attend the memorial.

"Most of us cannot truly understand what it means to embrace a profession that holds the possibility of danger or death, and we count our blessings that there are dedicated men and women that take on this challenge every day," she said.

Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz's voice broke several times while giving his tribute to Nichols and Lessard. He described them as "ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

"Today our entire city mourns with you, and we offer you our heartfelt support and appreciation for all Harold and Tom have done to keep our city safe,"Katz said.

'He never thought of himself as a hero'

Manyattending the memorialwept openlyduring thevideo photo montagesfrom the men'sfamily lives and throughout their careers.
More than 750 people attended the funeral of Capt. Harold Lessard, 55, six days before Wednesday's public memorial. ((Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service))

Nichols's adult children, Kelly and Kimberley, each remembered their father's love and strength.

"The last words I said to him on that Sunday were 'thank you.' His were, 'I love you, Kel.' Our last words sum it up: he gave me his love, and I truly appreciated it," said his son Kelly.

"I want you to know that as proud as you were of me, I was of you,"a visibly pregnant Kimberley read from a letter to her father."I want you to know, you would have made an excellent grandpa."

Bruce Ross, a friend of the Lessard family, read a statement written by Lessard's widow, Lynn, whoattended the service but was too distraught to speak.

"His dedication to his job is now legendary. But prior to the fourth of February, he just did it for a living. He never thought of himself as a hero, just as a dad and a husband who happened to be a firefighter.

"We will love him always and miss him terribly, and he shall not be forgotten," the letter said.

Flags flying at half-mast

Flags at all federal buildings in Winnipegare flyingat half-mast from sunrise to sunset on Wednesday. Cityemployees observed a moment of silence at 10 a.m. CT on Wednesdayas the memorial began.

Lessard, 55, and Nichols, 57, were among six firefighters trapped on the second floor of a burning Winnipeg home on Feb. 4 when they were hit by a flashover.Lessard and Nichols were killed by the huge fireball, which reached thousands of degrees Celsius within seconds.

"It's been a horrendous time for all of us, just the amount of grief and tragedy that we're going through," Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said before the service.
Capt. Tom Nichols, 57, was remembered at his funeral on Feb. 12 as a loving father. ((Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service) )

"As well, we always have to remember there are still two firefighters that are very seriously hurt that we have to assist and make sure they're not left out of anything."

Three of the four injured firemenattended the memorial service, with onearriving on astretcher and attended to by doctors.The fourth injured manis too seriously burned to leave the hospital.

"It's extremely hardon them because they're also grieving forthe firefighters they lost," Forrest said."These firefighters foughtbeside them when they died. Their physical wounds are one thing, but the mental anguish is another thing they have to deal with."

Honour fallen colleagues

Rich Couden, from Everett, Wash., is among thousands of firefighterswho travelled toWinnipeg to honour their fallen colleagues.

"Whenever you hear about a firefighter going down, it really sends chills because it could happen to anybody," said Couden.

"We take all the safety measures wecan, but when it comes right down to it,we go into unpredictable environments and things like this can happen."

Lessard and Nichols knew the importance of travelling to memorials like this one.Lessard attended the funeral last year of a firefighter in Thunder Bay.

Both families have already held private memorials for the men.