Lt. Christopher Leach and Senior Firefighter Jerry Fickes killed, five others injured answering a call
The tragic deaths of two city of Wilmington firefighters and injuries to five others on Sept. 24 touched the Catholic community in a profound way. Two of the firefighters, including one of the deceased, Lt. Christopher Leach, were graduates of Catholic schools, and Leach and a colleague have children in schools in the city.
Leach, 41, and Senior Firefighter Jerry Fickes, 51, perished while responding to a fire near Canby Park. After rushing into a burning row house, the floor gave way, sending Leach and others into the basement, where they were trapped. Fickes died while trying to rescue Leach. Three firefighters were treated and released, while two others were transported to Crozer-Chester Medical Center in critical condition. One of those was Ardythe Hope, whose two daughters attend St. Elizabeth High School.
Leach was a 1994 graduate of Salesianum School in Wilmington, where he was a classmate of current school president Brendan Kennealey. The two knew each other well, although they didn’t see each other for several years after graduation. Kennealey said Leach was a swimmer and involved in Model United Nations.
The school organized a prayer service the afternoon of the fire, where about 100 people gathered.
“We thought opening our doors and gathering together was what we could do that is uniquely Salesian,” Kennealey said. “We can’t make it go away, but we can be a place of respite. We thought it was important to do that.”
Leach’s son, Brendan, is a junior at Salesianum. Kennealey said the school has a support system in place for any student who has an emergency of this type, one that goes beyond the teenage years.
“For us, it’s not about being there for four years. He’ll be part of the Salesianum family, in some ways probably more so than anyone,” Kennealey said.
Leach is also survived by two daughters, Abigail and Megan. Abigail is a freshman at Padua Academy, while Megan attends St. Ann School, both in Wilmington.
Padua held a prayer service on Sept. 26, spokeswoman Carol Houseal said.
At St. Ann’s, the students have said the rosary and prayed together for the family. They also made care packages for the local fire station, said Stacy Solomon, the principal.
Students at St. Ann’s will be holding a casual day, with proceeds benefiting the Leach family, and the Home and School Association has donated to an online fund set up for the firefighters’ families.
St. Edmond’s Academy, from which Leach graduated in 1990, took several steps after receiving the news of his passing. The flag was lowered to half-mast, and both Leach and Fickes were mentioned in daily prayers. A second-grader who is close to the Leach family will lead a prayer service in his memory on Oct. 3, headmaster Brian Ray said.
In addition, all St. Edmond’s cross country and soccer athletes were to wear a black armband at their events the weekend of Sept. 30. St. Edmond’s students who play Catholic Youth Ministry football for other parishes also were to don the armbands, Ray said.
He added that the football players at Immaculate Heart of Mary wore a black line through the logo on their helmets during their game on Sept. 25. The team is coached by Michael Iglesias, a St. Edmond’s classmate.
The funeral for Leach, who also attended Ursuline Academy before St. Edmond’s, was scheduled for Sept. 30 at St. Elizabeth Church. Officials at his children’s schools said they would wait to see what the arrangements were before deciding if or how many students would attend.
Faith and solace
A public service for the two deceased men was set for Saturday at the Chase Center on the Riverfront. Father William Cocco, the pastor at St. Edmond’s Parish in Rehoboth Beach and the former Catholic chaplain for the Wilmington Fire Department, was asked to give the benediction at that service.
Father Cocco, who knew both Leach and Fickes, said the chaplain is there to provide spiritual or emotional support.
“Working in public safety, it can be a very stressful job. You can one minute be sitting in a car or a station, and the next minute, you’re running into a house trying to save someone,” said Father Cocco, a former police officer.
“All of that is difficult to deal with for anyone. Sometimes, they just need somebody to talk to.”
He said his message during the benediction would be how it is difficult to comprehend why bad things happen to good people. Many times, faith is the only thing that can bring solace.
“Although these things happen, God is still there, and when it comes to losing someone, a good person, and not understanding why, God knows all about that,” Father Cocco said.
St. E connections
The fire also touched St. Elizabeth Parish. Not only did the fire occur across Canby Park from the parish campus, two of the firefighters had connections to the high school.
Hope remained in Crozer-Chester midweek in critical but stable condition. One of her daughters is a junior, the other a sophomore. The girls, members of the volleyball program, played in their matches the afternoon of the fire, said Kathleen Houghton, a St. Elizabeth spokeswoman. One of the girls is on varsity, the other junior varsity. Their mother would have insisted they play, Houghton said.
The high school held a prayer service the morning of Sept. 26 where some family members joined students, faculty and staff.
“It’s what we do best, pray and support one another,” Houghton said.
The St. Elizabeth community honored all of the firefighters, not just Hope.
“We have so many children here at all levels who are children of police officers, firefighters, EMTs,” Houghton said. “Inevitably, it’s going to touch us somehow.”
John Cawthray was one of those treated and released. He is a 1992 graduate of St. Elizabeth High School and joined the fire department five years later.
Funeral services for Fickes were held Sept. 29 and 30. Two public viewings were held at Grace Lutheran Church in Hockessin; the service itself was private.