Fallen Philly firefighter's family remembers her as hero

Joyce Craig-Lewis always wanted to be a firefighter and loved her job; she's the first woman firefighter to die on duty in Philadelphia history

The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — She wasn't even supposed to be working.

Philadelphia Firefighter Joyce Craig-Lewis, who died in a house fire in West Oak Lane on Tuesday morning, had not been scheduled to be on Engine 73 fighting the blaze, according to family and friends.

But Craig-Lewis, 36, loved the job, said her son, Mekhi Green, 16. So she signed up for an overtime shift.

"She worked a lot," her son said Tuesday afternoon in the family's Northeast living room, where people took turns caring for her 16-month-old daughter, Laylani.

The firefighter's boyfriend, Jason Anderson, agreed. "She was just all-consumed by this job," he said. "That was her thing."

An 11-year veteran, Craig-Lewis had always wanted to be a firefighter, friends said. Even in the first grade, when other children were talking about becoming doctors or teachers, Craig-Lewis heard sirens in her head, said lifelong friend Donna McBride, 36.

"People told her that was just for men," McBride recalled.

Craig-Lewis did not accept that, she added.

To Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer, who lauded Craig-Lewis at a news conference, the mother of two was a "firefighter's firefighter."

To her brother, Michael Craig, 33, she was a hero.

"She went out fighting," he said, surrounded by loved ones in Craig-Lewis' neat two-story brick twin on Friendship Street.

"There's nothing better than an honorable death. We all don't have an opportunity to die with so much honor. I'm proud of her."

The first woman firefighter to die on duty in Philadelphia history, Craig-Lewis is one of 83 women firefighters to perish on the job nationwide since 1990, according to figures from the U.S. Fire Administration, a data-collection and analysis agency that is part of the Department of Homeland Security. During that same time, 3,005 male firefighters died on duty, figures show.

While Craig-Lewis' death was a shock, those close to her had harbored fears that the worst might happen.

Her friend Fatima Hart had a habit of texting her pal whenever she heard that a Philadelphia firefighter had been injured.

After Hart, 35, learned there was an injured firefighter in West Oak Lane on Tuesday morning, she began texting Craig-Lewis.

Knowing that her friend had not been scheduled to work, Hart grew annoyed when Craig-Lewis did not respond.

Pique intensified to concern: "I was getting real worried," Hart said. "Then my world just fell apart."

The women had been close for about 12 years, since Craig-Lewis worked as a driver and dispatcher for SEPTA's Customized Community Transportation, which provides paratransit service for senior citizens and people with disabilities.

"Her loyalty was amazing," Hart said.

They had traveled together to Las Vegas, Mexico, and the Bahamas.

"We had some crazy times," Hart said. Craig-Lewis could be "very playful and silly," she added.

"She's got this laugh," Hart recalled, describing the sound as loud and distinctive, and worthy of razzing from a friend. "I would bust on her laugh real hard."

One of five children, Craig-Lewis was a 1995 graduate of Dobbins High School in North Philadelphia.

Hart said the SEPTA job was a placeholder in Craig-Lewis' life until she could move on to the Fire Department, her first and most enduring love.

After taking the test for admission to the Fire Academy, Craig-Lewis had to wait 18 months before she was accepted, friends said. She took a pay cut to become a firefighter, they said.

During her firefighting career, Craig-Lewis worked at Engine 9 and Ladder 21 in Germantown, Engine 45 in North Philadelphia, and Engine 64 in Rhawnhurst, city officials said.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Nutter described Craig-Lewis, one of 150 women firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs in Philadelphia, as "decorated." He did not elaborate.

Craig-Lewis had been injured on the job eight years before, friends said. Focused on holding a hose as she battled a blaze, Craig-Lewis did not realize that her right leg had been pressed against a piece of fire-heated metal, they said.

The resulting burn required a skin graft and kept Craig-Lewis bedridden for two months, they said.

Hart helped Craig-Lewis, making sure her son, now a junior at New Foundations Charter School in Holmesburg, got to school each day.

Fighting through his grief, Anderson managed to sum up the woman he loved:

"She was a great mom, a great girlfriend, and a great person generally.

"And she took her job seriously."

Copyright 2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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