Gadsden Fire Department remembers tragedy

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By Mary Elizabeth Dial, Staff Correspondent

August 31 marked the 40th anniversary of the explosion that claimed the lives of three Gadsden Fire Department members, an event that many Gadsden residents remember to this day. At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the Gadsden Fire Department held a memorial service for these men and three others, all killed in the line of duty throughout the Gadsden Fire Department’s history.

Attendees of the memorial service included the families of the deceased as well as local leaders such as Mayor Sherman Guyton. The service began with Chief Stephen Carroll’s welcome and opening statements, in which he mourned the six men who sacrificed their lives and lamented the explosion that took half of them.

“We’ve had way too many [tragedies],” said Chief Carroll, but “this [was] the most tragic event in the Gadsden Fire Department’s history.”

Following Chief Carroll’s opening statements, Bruce Taliaferro led the invocation and performed the national anthem. An honor guard placed a wreath on the monument to the men killed in the explosion, and Chief Carroll read the names of the dead as a member of the honor guard rang a bell for each of them. Finally, the flag in front of the Central Fire Station was lowered to half-staff while a Gadsden City High School student performed “Taps” on trumpet. Following the conclusion of the ceremony, the families of the honorees mingled with each other and members of the fire.

On August 31, 1976, a service station on U.S. Highway 278 exploded, resulting in the deadliest fire in the history of the Gadsden Fire Department. Fire Chief James A. Speer and fire medics Michael Patrick and Michael Thornton were killed while combating the blaze. A monument to their sacrifice was built outside the Central Fire Station on 322 Walnut Street, next to the bell that was housed in Gadsden’s original town hall. Assistant Chief Curtis E. Benefield, Commander Clyde D. Jacobs, Sr. and Commander Gerald R. Smith, Sr. also died in the line of duty in 1958, 1980 and 1989, respectively. These six are remembered each year at the memorial service held on the anniversary of the 1976 explosion.

Although decades have now passed, Gadsden has not forgotten the tragedy that made real the danger that firefighters face every day. The people of Gadsden still remember the event with horror and sorrow. A section of 4th Street was blocked to allow room for the moderate crowd that attended the memorial service, and flowers can regularly be seen on the monument to the three fallen men.

Even more powerful than the impact the event had on the community is the impact it had on the Gadsden Fire Department itself, where those who lost their lives on the job are still regarded as heroes and inspirations.

“They gave of their lives unselfishly because that is who they were,” said Chief Carroll. In a line of work where danger is expected, the six men who faced it bravely will likely be revered as long as Gadsden exists to remember them.

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