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Rising from the ashes of grief: Firefighter widows carry on legacies through advocacy

After losing their partners in separate fires, Celeste Flynn, Clara Fenelon and Sara Laird are working together to prevent future firefighter fatalities

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By Bill Rehkopf

“We’re of like mind. We have decided that we’re going to control our path and control their legacy.”

Celeste Flynn’s determination is clear as she explains the bond among Clara Fenelon, Sara Laird and herself – a bond literally forged from fire.

Flynn, Laird and Fenelon are widows of the U.S. fire service, having lost their partners in separate fires in Maryland in recent years. Now, they have united to create a nonprofit advocacy organization. The goal: to reduce firefighter fatalities and injuries and to promote new standards and legislation to prevent future tragedies.

Tragedy strikes: ‘This isn’t happening’

Flynn’s husband, Lt. Nathan Flynn of the Howard County (Maryland) Department of Fire and Rescue Services, died on July 23, 2018, when he fell through the floor of a house into a burning crawl space beneath. Laird’s husband, Battalion Chief Joshua Laird of the Frederick County (Maryland) Department of Fire and Rescue Services, died on Aug. 11, 2021, when he fell into the basement of a home while fighting a house fire. Fenelon’s fiancé, Kenny Lacayo of the Baltimore City Fire Department, was one of three firefighters killed in the collapse of a burning rowhouse on Jan. 22, 2022.


Lt. Nathan Flynn and Celeste Flynn with family members.

Photo/Celeste Flynn

For Fenelon, it was a surreal day. “It shocked me, I could not believe it,” she says. “When they called me, they said (Kenny) had an accident. I thought, perhaps, on the way to work. It blew my mind when I saw the commotion in the city that was happening.”

Flynn was likewise stunned when she was notified of Nate’s death. “When they came to the door to tell me he had passed, I literally remember holding the door shut,” Flynn says. “Like, ‘Nope, this isn’t happening. Howard County does not have fires like this.’”


Battalion Chief Joshua Laird and Sara Laird with their two children, Erin and Madelyn.

Photo/Sara Laird

Laird remembers the last phone conversation she had with her husband, Josh, the day that he died. “I talked to him at lunch, you know, about stupid stuff. Life.” She later learned that Josh’s last words after he fell into the basement and transmitted a mayday were, “Tell my family that I love them.”

“That was so him, that was so very him,” Laird recalls. “I’m grateful for that. That’s something that most people don’t get. We were always together. Our joy came out of being together and seeing our kids do great things.”

Connections amid grief: ‘How can we help?’

Flynn initially was reaching out for connections following her husband’s death. “I was geographically separated from the Howard County community, and there weren’t a whole lot of people who knew what I’ve gone through,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is hard. This is tough.’ It would have been really helpful to have someone to talk to about this.”

Which is why Flynn reached out to Laird following the loss of her husband, Josh, three years later. “I was a couple of years into my own grief process, and I felt like I was in a position where I was able to give some of that back,” Flynn explains.

Laird says she appreciated Flynn’s gesture, but, “I wasn’t ready. You have a lot of people reach out when something like this happens, and some of them are helpful and some of them aren’t so helpful. So I was a little hesitant at first.”

“But once I finally had an evening, I sat down and Googled her, and I read about Nate’s fire, and then I immediately understood why she was reaching out to me. I also ‘stalked’ her on Facebook and saw her pictures, and realized that she was OK,” Laird laughed.


Kenny Lacayo and Clara Fenelon.

Photo/Clara Fenelon

Then came the January 2022 fire in southwest Baltimore that killed Firefighter/EMT Kenny Lacayo, Lt. Kelsey Sadler and Lt. Paul Butrim. “It was in the morning and I just started my workday,” Flynn said. “Sara texted me and she’s like, ‘Are you following what’s happening in the city?’ We just stopped working and were on the phone, asking, what can we do? How can we help?”

Not long after the tragedy, Flynn and Laird reached out to Fenelon, who had been engaged to Lacayo, and the three immediately clicked. “I feel like it was immediately helpful for me to know of people that have been at that level of loss,” Fenelon says. “I could just, you know, be sad together, but also be happy in a way to have found your people. That’s how it feels to me, that you have found your own groove. I’m just happy to have some other people that have gone through it.”

Phoenix Advocates is born: ‘We want to push the message out wider’

Laird and Fenelon share Flynn’s determination to control their story, as well as that of their loved ones. To that end, they have created a nonprofit advocacy organization to advance their efforts.

“Celeste and I had been talking about [a nonprofit] after we met,” Laird says. “And then, we met Clara, who was saying she’d like to do something to remember Kenny.”

Thus, the seeds were sown for what would eventually become Phoenix Advocates. At first, Flynn says, it was all about firefighter safety. “I had worked with Howard County to establish a training program in Nate’s name,” Flynn says. “Training and education was something that was very, very important to him.”

“When I first started talking with Sara, I mentioned this to her and she was like, this is a great idea. Josh would be all for this too,” Flynn added. “So they started doing the training for Josh and Frederick County.”

But there was something else that linked the two firefighters together. Both of the fires that killed Flynn and Laird were sparked by lightning strikes and compromised corrugated stainless-steel tubing (CSST) gas lines. “Because we knew this, the CSST topic was very important and needed to be spread,” Flynn says.

Flynn and Laird have appeared at conferences and other events across the country to highlight the issues surrounding CSST, and to raise awareness of the potential dangers with fire service leaders. “When these products fail, they result in fires,” Laird says emphatically. “If that product hadn’t been in that house, in my opinion, my husband would be here today.”

The two have also helped to promote legislation in Maryland that would ban the specific type of CSST involved in both the Flynn and Laird tragedies. As of this writing, the legislation remained in committee in the Maryland legislature.

“We’ve done as much as we can locally for the awareness campaign,” Flynn says. “We’ve pushed the education piece hard. Now we want to push the message out wider.” Phoenix Advocates plans to appear at several events this spring, including FDIC in Indianapolis to highlight the CSST issue.

Serving families: ‘We were not prepared’

In Baltimore, the work of Phoenix Advocates is focusing on the issue of urban blight and the dangers it presents to first responders and others. It’s a two-pronged approach, according to Fenelon. “The hope is to strengthen fire department standard operating procedures for fires in vacant homes and to advocate for the revitalization of neighborhoods,” Fenelon says. She hopes to see new homes in the city’s struggling neighborhoods. “Demolishing vacant homes isn’t enough, as it still leaves an empty lot, making it prone to crime.”

And then, there are the families. “Our perspective is different,” says Flynn, describing the proactive message Phoenix Advocates is promoting. “We’ve been through a different side of line-of-duty deaths, coming from the family perspective. The challenges, the paperwork, the lessons we’ve learned along the way – we want to be able to share those stories with families of first responder loved ones so that they can be prepared in the event of an LODD.”

That resonates with Laird. “One of the big things that all three of us I think would agree on is that we were not prepared. We each had a different perspective of what a line-of-duty death would look like and what the benefits would look like – and all three of us were wrong.”

There wasn’t much discussion about the potential of a line-of-duty injury or death among the women and their partners, and when there was, it was a shallow conversation, often rooted in error. “Josh used to say to me, ‘Oh, I’m worth more to you dead than I am alive,’” Laird says. “He would say, ‘You’re good’ … but he was wrong. I wasn’t eligible for workers’ compensation.”

There are also things that every couple must contend with, such as funeral planning. “We found ourselves having to make decisions, questioning whether we were doing the right thing,” Laird says. “I mean, the only thing that I knew is that Josh wanted to be cremated. And then, they started asking who I wanted the pallbearers to be. What music did I want them to play? I had no idea. So, these are the conversations that we want spouses to have with their loved ones. To make sure that their paperwork has been updated and avoid the lessons the three of us had to learn.”

Flynn adds, “We can’t tell families how to write their paperwork or what not to plan for, but we can give them some background information as to how these choices might impact their families once their spouses are gone.”

For Fenelon, who was engaged to Lacayo when he died, part of the connection to family and loved ones is to be sure that no one is left behind following a line-of-duty death. “I would love to be in a position where we can help people who fall through the cracks,” she says. “We’re talking about fiancés, children from previous marriages, things of that nature. We want to help those people who, based on paperwork and bureaucracy, just fall through the cracks.”

Fire service support: ‘They are doing amazing work’

The trio’s determination and drive are gaining attention across the country. “I have been very fortunate to witness Sara, Celeste and Clara’s work to improve firefighter safety through Phoenix Advocates,” says Chief Tom Coe of Frederick County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, who was Josh Laird’s chief and incident commander on his final call. “These strong, intelligent and articulate women have taken incredible personal tragedy and invested themselves to ensure fire service personnel and legislators are aware of hazards that exist in their communities. Their work has not only saved lives but has honored the legacies of Josh, Nate and Kenny.”

Deputy Chief Billy Goldfelder of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio has worked with Fenelon, Flynn and Laird and admires their work. “These three amazing women are doing all they can to support the legacies of their loved ones, to help firefighters understand the last incident their loved ones went through and what can be done to help minimize future losses of firefighters. They are doing some amazing work, and our support of that work is greatly welcomed and needed.”

The ultimate honor: ‘We’re taking that energy forward’

The goals shared by Fenelon, Flynn and Laird are ambitious, and they come with a big adjustment to their personal lives. But all three say it’s about something that’s bigger than themselves.

The three women all believe that a sense of fate has drawn them together, and that Phoenix Advocates will be a legacy that reflects the men whom they lost. “They all had these big senses of humor, laughs and smiles,” Flynn says. “That’s how they lived their lives. They loved big. They loved their people hard. And now, we have to do that for them. We’re taking that energy forward for them and under their names. It’s important for us to keep pushing their energy out there.”

About the author
Bill Rehkopf is a 40-year veteran of the U.S. fire service, currently serving as PIO for the Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Department in Maryland. He is a longtime broadcast journalist, most recently with CBS News in Washington, D.C., and with radio stations in New York City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Rehkopf serves as a journalism and public affairs instructor at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland.