Bells ring for fallen firefighters
KADENA AIR BASE - Three white blocks sit 10 feet from a cement memorial where three square stones have been placed in memory of fallen firefighters from Kadena.
Each cement block holds a single flag pole, which is home to the American flag, the Japanese flag, and the Kadena Fire Department flag.
Despite being overseas, this memorial, along with a ceremony that took place Oct. 7, is one way Kadena remembers fallen American firefighters.
Bells Across America was started in 2011 by the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation to honor American firefighters that made the ultimate sacrifice in 2010. This year, Kadena adds one of their own to the 83 fallen firefighters that gave their lives in 2011.
"Derek Kozorosky died on Feb. 11, 2011 during a backing accident at Fire Department Headquarters," explained Tech. Sgt. Nelson Thomas, Kadena Fire Emergency Services fire prevention inspector. "I was the Assistant Chief in charge the day of Derek's accident."
Thomas also led operations to rescue his fallen firefighter, alongside Staff Sgt. James Wolnik, Kadena Fire Emergency Services fire prevention inspector.
He explained that although the accident occured more than a year and a half ago, it's still fresh, and difficult to talk about. Instead he pauses to remember his fallen brother.
"I worked with him for six months in Fire Station 1 and regarded him as one of the best and brightest of all our firefighters," said Thomas. "Derek was always willing to give 100% and never complained about anything."
Wolnik, as well as Thomas, agree that Derek was a great guy at work, someone that Airmen could look up to. He always had a smile on his face, and was eager to learn something new every day.
"Koz and I were on the same 'kelly day set,' which is our regular day off," said Staff Sgt. James Wolnik, Kadena Fire Emergency Services fire prevention inspector. "He was the one that I'd go out to dinner with while everyone was at work."
He had a kindred spirit, said Thomas. "I will forever be greatful for the time that I knew Derek."
"For the longest time I didn't want to believe that it had happened," Wolnik said, his voice shaky. "Even after, once we had found out that he had passed away, it was surreal. I was kind of numb for quite a while."
"It was all a blur," Thomas said. "I took it pretty hard, because I know there was nothing that I could have physically done to stop the accident from happening."
Wolnik explains how although the accident tore the department apart in the beginning, he and his fellow firefighters came together and painted a mural at a section of the Sunabe Seawall outside Kadena's gates.
"It brings the old (firefighters) together and gives us something to bring the new firefighters into," Wolnik said about the mural memorial in remembrance of Derek.
The ringing of the bell is symbolic within the fire department. It symbolizes that a comrade has fallen, thus, at the end of the ceremony, the bell rang a total of nine times, three times for fallen firefighters of Kadena; Todd Crigger, Jun. 3, 1990, Takashi Shimada, Dec. 23, 2010, and Derek Kovorosky, Feb. 11, 2011.
"It's a time for us to pay respects, and to think of those who we've lost too soon," Thomas said with an emotional pause.
Kadena's ceremony as well as a ceremony at Misawa Air Base, Japan, coincide with 300 fire departments across the United States holding a National Fallen Firefighter Memorial ceremony in Emmitsburg, Md., Oct. 7.
"To me, (Bells Across America) is a remembrance and the accepting of our fallen brothers into the brotherhood forever," said Wolnik.