By Ted Schnell • BocaJump | Saturday, May 12, 2012
With an American flag suspended between two aerial ladders leaning up toward the sky above them, residents and family members gathered with firefighters and paramedics from around the area Saturday to honor emergency crews who died in the line of duty in the past year.
The Elgin Area Firefighters' Memorial was a ceremony rich with firefighter symbolism — the flag flying between the two fire trucks’ ladders is a traditional tribute to the fallen, as is the ringing of a fire bell — local dignitaries joined the firefighters and the crowd in remembering those who died while working to protect the lives and property of others.
Elgin Mayor David Kaptain and Fire Department Chaplain Roger Pollock were among those speaking during the ceremony.
Elgin has been holding the memorial service each year since 1993, Elgin Fire Chief John Fahy told the crowd that gathered shortly before 10 a.m. at the Elgin Fire Barn No. 5 Museum on St. Charles Street. The service has grown into an area commemoration attended by representatives of departments up and down the Fox Valley, from Algonquin to South Elgin and from Bartlett to Pingree Grove.
Few firefighters have died in the line of duty in Elgin, but many would argue that even one is too much. Elgin lost two brave men in 1974: Capt. Stanley Balsis and firefighter Michael Whalen drowned while attempting to rescue an individual who went over the Kimball Street dam in a boat to win a bet.
Saturday’s ceremony was a tribute to men like Balsis and Whalen, and more recently, Capt. John “Winky” Winkleman of the Huntley Fire Department. Huntley Fire Chief James Saletta recalled Winkleman as a family man and 24-year department veteran who lost his life in a motorcycle accident last month. Winkleman was returning from a meeting his department had assigned him to attend when his motorcycle was struck by a car in Crystal Lake.
“He was a quiet individual, well-liked, respected by everyone,” Saletta said “John was married to his wife Lynn for over 16 years. In addition to Lynn, he leaves behind three adult children and two adult stepsons, and they are here today. ... ‘Winky’ was my friend.”
Saletta said Winkleman’s death shook the department to the core, but it also drew members of the department together in crisis to honor Winkleman in the leadup to his funeral. Also in the days after his death, Saletta said, the brotherhood of firefighters coalesced to support the Huntley department at a time when its own members were grappling with loss and grief.
Elgin’s Chief Fahy noted that six Illinois firefighters sacrificed their lives in the line of duty in 2011.
While the annual ceremony is a tribute geared primarily toward firefighters who have died in in the line of duty, the ranks of those who have served to protect the lives and property of others also is thinning with age. So it was that the ceremony also mourned the loss of those among the brotherhood who had passed on from natural causes.