Some things you never, ever forget
Three lost firefighters honored and remembered in Lewistown
LEWISTOWN -Three young men were remembered Saturday afternoon at Victory Park. Their deaths 50 years and one day prior – on June 1, 1968 – were being call the “9/11 of Mifflin County.” The trio of junior firefighters with Lewistown Fire Department perished responding to a silo fire at Dairyland in Reedsville. The three were at the top of the silo when heat combusted inside the structure, exploding the top of it into the air, killing the young men.
Large portrait photos of Jack Hopple,19, Richard White,18, and John Wilson,17, were sitting across the stage.
The memorial tribute came about at the suggestion of Hopple’s niece, Sheri Shoemaker. She contacted Bob Barlett, chief of Lewistown fire department. The pair worked together to have special speakers from the firefighting field share speeches as well as pay a fitting a tribute to each young man.
Shoemaker, who was 2-years-old when her uncle died, handed out “proclamations of hope” to those who spoke at the memorial and relatives of the deceased. Seated in the front
row were family members. Parents of all three junior
firefighters have since passed away. However siblings,
nieces and nephews were on hand. Friends and firefighters from 1968 to present day lined the rows behind, many standing in uniform in the shade of the trees.
Fire department chaplain Randy Traxler and Mayor Deb Bargo addressed the crowd. Mike “Pat” Pauley, formerly with Fame Fire Department in 1968, who was on the scene 50 years ago and shared with those at the memorial.
“I remember when the air horns sounded that day,” Pauley said. Pauley spoke about the tragedy’s impact on helping experts determine the best way to fight silo fires ever since. Several universities, including Penn State, had training programs on the topic. Pauley said many national articles were written on study findings about how to properly extinguish such fires, most of which named the tragedy at Dairyland and its victims.
Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Bruce Trego took to the podium. He spoke about the family unit that was Lewistown and Fame Fire Departments. It was not unusual for firefighters from both companies to fill in for each other when volunteers were down.
“In 1968 we did not have line of duty death protocol,” Trego said. A special framed piece that read “Lest We Forget” was dedicated at Saturday’s event, which Trego gave to fire chiefs and local officials on behalf of Gov. Tom Wolfe.
Ed Mann, former Pennsylvania State Fire commissioner, who served as a fire fighter in the Lewistown area in the mid-1980s addressed the issue of helping families of fire fighters killed in the line of duty. Mann said in his 14 years as fire commissioner, he has attended at least 100 funerals for men and women killed in the line of duty across the state.
“Community members and fire departments forget,” he said, in the years following the tragedies in other areas.
Mann said one of the “most frustrating parts of my job” included visiting fire departments after the tragedies “an basically have to arm wrestle someone to fill out a three page form” or line of duty death paperwork that helps family members receive help following the loss. It is known as Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Programs which provide death and education benefits to families of fallen firefighters, law enforcement officers, and other first responders.
Lewistown Fire Department, Mann said, “does not forget.”
Neither has Sylvan Rhodes Norris.
Norris was to marry junior firefighter Richard White. Norris, also known as “Shorty,” said she knew of the other two young men as well.
“They were firefighters. They loved what they did. “
Norris gave the community an instruction to “always say ‘I love you,'” before going out the door.