Colo. firefighters remember fallen brother
The state’s band of firefighting brothers and sisters turned out in a big way to ensure Kuzik wouldn’t be alone, even in death
Greeley Tribune, Colo.
GREELEY, Colo. — Early on Thursday, April 25, Greeley Fire Lt. Doug Gilliand arrived at Station 1 to report for work with the other members of C Shift.
But instead of following his normal routine of setting out his bunker gear before changing, Gilliand first went upstairs to the second floor of the firehouse to put on his uniform. He was still changing when at 6:31 a.m. Station 1 received a call about a traffic accident involving a motorcycle.
Gilliand rushed downstairs, but because his turnout gear wasn’t ready, he opted not to go out on the call so not to slow down the response of Engine 1 and Ladder 1.
On the other side of town, Battalion Chief Bob Fries was driving into Station 1 when he heard about the crash over the radio. He decided to respond to see if he could help.
When he pulled onto the 1300 block of 5th Street, Fries announced over the radio he was on scene.
“We’re working one of our own,” Lt. Matt Hawkins responded.
That transmission reverberated through Station 1 over a speaker system that airs radio traffic to every corner of the firehouse.
“We all knew at that point,” Gilliand said. “It was pretty obvious.”
That morning, firefighter Steve Kuzik rode his motorcycle into work. He was traveling east in the 1300 block of 5th Street when a westbound GMC Suburban veered into Kuzik’s lane, crashing head-on into his motorcycle. Kuzik was rushed to North Colorado Medical Center where he later died.
Battalion Chief Ben Ojinaga couldn’t help but reflect on a series of occurrences, small blessings some might call them, that took place the day Kuzik died.
Like Gilliand, firefighter Tanner Howard also deviated from his daily routine and decided to change into his uniform before prepping his turnout gear for his shift. He also didn’t go out on the call.
Ojinaga woke up that day earlier than usual and decided to take the scenic route to work. He arrived at Station 1 about seven or eight minutes before the call. He wondered had he risen at his usual time and driven his usual route, would he have been the battalion chief to respond to the crash instead of Fries.
And then there was Engine 1 Engineer Luke Whitson who was out of town.
It was as though some force was trying to spare as many of Kuzik’s friends as possible from having to respond to his tragic accident, Ojinaga said.
Tillerman for life
Ladder 1 is draped in mourning cloth in honor of firefighter Steven Kuzik, who served on the truck. Kuzik was the tillerman for Ladder 1. A tillerman drives the rear of the truck. (Louis Amestoyemail@example.com)
Kuzik was born July 27, 1960, in Torrejón de Ardoz, Madrid, Spain. When he was 2, his family left their native country for Queens, New York.
The Kuzik family later moved west, ultimately landing in Greeley. Kuzik graduated in 1978 from Greeley West High School before attending Aims Community College en route to EMT School and the Fire Academy.
Kuzik served with the Greeley Fire Department for 21 years and managed the department’s Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus program, among other duties. He was twice named firefighter of the year.
But there were few things in Kuzik’s career that brought him more pride than serving as the tillerman for Ladder 1. A tillerman is the rear driver of a tiller aerial ladder truck.
Greeley Fire’s 63 1/2-foot long tiller aerial ladder is the only such firefighting apparatus in the state. Kuzik was one of the first certified tillermen in Colorado and drove the rear of Ladder 1 for C Shift since 2009 when the department purchased the rig.
Although Kuzik took pride in his specialty as a tillerman, Engine 1 Lt. Shawn Eggleston said Kuzik’s legacy will transcend his driving abilities.
“He set the culture on 1C,” Eggleston said. “Even though he wasn’t promoted above firefighter, he was the leader.
“When you have to pull someone out of a burning house, it’s important to have that bond. That’s how important this stuff is. This really is a family. Losing him is like losing a brother.”
At 5 feet, 6 inches tall, Kuzik was the butt of more than his share of short jokes, but he took it in stride and dished it as well as he took it, Whitson said. But he treated everyone with respect. It didn’t matter if it was a firefighter’s first day or if they had been with the department for 30 years.
“He made you feel respected and that doesn’t happen in every position on the department,” Whitson said. “Steve was someone you look up to; someone you try to emulate your career after.”
Brotherhood and sisterhood of the fire service
Out-of-town firefighters stand watch over the remains of Greeley firefighter Steve Kuzik at Allnut Funeral Services. Firefighters from throughout the state helped the Greeley Fire Department stand watch over Kuzik around the clock for more than a week until his funeral Friday. (Shawn Eggleston/For The Tribune)
The outpouring of support from the community was almost immediate as news of Kuzik’s death spread throughout Greeley and Weld County, Eggleston said. Countless people showed up at firehouses with cookies. Restaurant owners brought meals. Residents on the street simply waved or gave thumbs up to show their support as trucks continued to roll through the city responding to calls.
The state’s band of firefighting brothers and sisters also turned out in a big way to ensure Kuzik wouldn’t be alone, even in death, Ojinaga said. Two-man teams of firefighters stood watch over Kuzik at Allnut Funeral Services for more than a week until Friday’s funeral.
“We felt it was our duty as firefighters to watch over him until his inurnment,” Ojinaga said on Thursday. “At least two firefighters have been there the entire time to make sure he is not alone out of respect for him and his family.”
Firefighters from Poudre Valley, Eaton, Evans, Mountain View, Boulder, Denver, South Metro, Thornton, Longmont, Front Range and Loveland, to name a few, all signed up for rotations, Ojinaga said. Many of those firefighters didn’t know Kuzik, but came out to pay their respects because they felt it was their duty.
“There was an assistant chief from Frederick-Firestone who signed up for a six-hour overnight shift,” Ojinaga said. “I went there (to Allnut) to thank him. It’s funny, we had a conversation about the brotherhood and sisterhood of the fire service and how we sometimes take it for granted.
“He replied ‘It’s always running in the background. It’s always there. And it’ll show up front and center when you need it.”
©2019 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.)