For firefighters, the loss of Capt. David Rosa was about family—and showing up

So sad. Condolences. RIP. Prayers. Thoughts.

In weeks like this, our language is left clichéd, and always limited.

Social media has been replete with this kind of sentiment since Monday, when the Long Beach Fire Department lost a member of its family: Capt. David Rosa, who was fatally shot after responding to a retirement building in Downtown Long Beach.

I say “family”—a cliché, I know—in the metaphorical sense. But firefighters and other first-responders are closer than most co-workers.

I grew up in a firefighting family: My dad is a retired captain, as are my uncles and both grandfathers.

Barry and Chris, the paramedic and engineer assigned to my dad’s station, were as close to me and my brother as uncles. We hung out with their kids and wives at the station on Thanksgiving and Christmas when the B shift was scheduled to work, knowing to get out of the way when the loudspeaker blared an incoming call. We whined as the wives covered food with plastic wrap until their husbands returned, sometimes reeking of smoke.

The bond firefighters share isn’t just about living together, though.

Capt. Joe Woyjeck, who retired a year ago from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, described it this way: “You go into a burning building, you can’t see anything, and you and your buddy are crawling around, and you look at each other—you’re both covered in dirt and other stuff —you don’t know where you’re going, but you have to get in, you have to search—sometimes flames are rolling over your head—and then you both get out. You can’t explain that feeling to anyone.”

I called Woyjeck about this week’s tragedy because he knows what it’s like to be at the center of one: His son, Kevin Woyjeck, a member of an elite firefighting crew, was killed on June 30, 2013, along with 18 others in Yarnell, Arizona, when flames overtook them. He was 21.

Woyjeck traveled to Prescott, Arizona, to handle arrangements, and at one point turned and saw Engine 14 from the Long Beach Fire Department. The crew, along with many others across the country, had come to offer support.

A few days later, Deputy Fire Chief Rich Brandt and Fire Chief Mike DuRee from Long Beach showed up at Woyjeck’s home in Seal Beach to personally deliver an American flag that had flown atop the department’s engine during a procession for Kevin. It was enclosed in a case the firefighters had built themselves.

“People put their arms around their family,” Woyjeck said. “We were all in this together.”

The same happened this week as members of police, fire and sheriffs departments all over Southern California showed up. They came from Los Angeles. San Diego. The Bay Area.

One of the most poignant scenes was described in the Post by Dr. Mauricio Heilbron Jr., a trauma surgeon at St. Mary Medical Center, where Rosa was taken the morning of the shooting: “There were hundreds of firefighters and some police and medical people lined up along the hallways standing at attention. The line went all the way down the hall, down through the lobby all the way to the car that took him away.”

A trauma surgeon describes the ‘organized chaos’ of trying to save a Long Beach firefighter

Busy city streets and freeways were shut down as dozens of fire trucks and police cruisers carried Rosa’s body to the coroner, then to a mortuary in Orange County where he lived  with his wife and two sons. Personnel stood at attention at every overpass, flying the American flag.

Rosa worked for the department for 17 years, most recently at Station 10 in Central Long Beach. He previously worked as a training captain, interacting with dozens of recruits in the academy.

Woyjeck said the younger firefighters today are even closer than previous generations. Because there are fewer academies, firefighters who don’t work in the same department have likely met each other somewhere along the line in a classroom.

The showing for Rosa’s memorial service at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Long Beach Arena will be enormous. (JetBlue is even offering to fly personnel from around the country to Long Beach for free.)

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of public safety officers will gather, all wearing their Class A uniforms, as requested by the department. There will be honor guards, gleaming fire trucks, pipes and drums.

They did the same for Woyjeck’s son. They did the same for the 343 firefighters killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They likely have done the same for the 47 firefighters who have been killed in the line of duty across the country so far in 2018.

Words are difficult; my dad didn’t talk much about the tragedies he encountered on the job, and I can understand why.

You can’t explain it. You just show up.

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Melissa has been a journalist for over two decades, starting her career as a reporter covering health and religion and moving into local news. She has worked as an editor for eight years, including seven years at the Press Telegram before joining the Long Beach Post in June 2018. She also serves as a part-time lecturer at Cal State Long Beach where she teaches multimedia journalism and writing.