In May of 1994, as Managing Editor of The Fire Fighter Newspaper and as a guest of VFIS, I and three other local firefighters (Dave Sherman, Jim Guy and Ric Dimpfl) traveled to Washington DC to attend the National Fire & Emergency Services Congressional Caucus Dinner coordinated by the Congressional Fire Services Institute.
Several hours before the dinner started and before I ever met him, John Jordan taught me a very valuable lesson: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
We were at breakfast at the Washington Hilton and this mountain of a man sat at a table across from us. With his scruffy beard and dressed in a flannel shirt and suspenders, I quipped: “Now, there’s a volunteer firefighter if I’ve ever seen one.” Little did I know that I would be eating those words for dinner later that evening.
We spent the day visiting Washington landmarks and made our way back to the hotel. Passing through the heavy security, we were seated with a good vantage point near the center of the room full of probably 500 people or more. We enjoyed a nice meal and conversation and waited for the program to start.
After some introductions and opening remarks, Congressmen Steny Hoyer and Curt Weldon described the work of a volunteer firefighter from Bristol, Rhode Island who had been supporting firefighters in war-torn Bosnia. Following a detailed description of his work, the much-lauded firefighter stepped to the podium.
It was John Jordan, the mountain of a man with the scruffy beard, dressed in a flannel shirt and suspenders, that we had sat across from at breakfast. Boy, was I embarassed. Open mouth — insert foot.
He told of firefighters, many of them volunteers, fighting fires in raincoats and sneakers — while being shot at. Could you imagine? Fighting the fires was the least dangerous part of their job. Just trying to stay alive was the most challenging part. Despite the constant threat of Serbian gun and mortar fire, they perservered and did their jobs.
It turns out that the only thing bigger than John Jordan’s shoulders was his heart. We listened to their stories, embraced their mission and joined the relief effort and gained new friends in doing so. As a result of our exposure to this problem half-a-world away, we started a local relief effort for “Firefighters Under Fire.” We didn’t know much about the conflict or the politics of it all, nor did we care. It was just about helping fellow firefighters. It was just about the brotherhood.
I’m proud to say that our county’s firefighters (Erie County NY) sent more gear and equipment than any other county in the US at the time. We were recognized in the Congressional Record by then-Congressman Jack Quinn as a result of our efforts.
Returning to the dinner the following year, we had the pleasure of hearing and meeting the Chief of the Sarajevo Fire Brigade that John had worked with. A few months later, we received word that, like many of his firefighters, the chief had been assasinated. We stayed in touch with John and his group for a few years after that but eventually lost touch.
I’ve often thought about what their situation is like now. I haven’t kept up on events in that part of the world nor the path of John Jordan. Regardless, he remains a hero to me today.
My personal thanks to FireCritic for reminding me of one of the most rewarding missions I’ve ever had the honor to be involved in.
Here’s the direct link to the YouTube video in case, like me, you can’t watch from the FireCritic site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhCCheLSz5M
To learn more about John Jordan and his incredible story, click here.
PS – I have some old news articles and background info about this whole experience. I’ll dig it up and add it here.