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Part of Mo. highway renamed to honor fallen firefighter

Saint Joseph Captain Travis Owens served the department for 25 years and fought a long battle against cancer

By Cameron Montemayor
St. Joseph News-Press

SAINT JOSEPH, Mo. — It’s been nearly five years since the last alarm rang out at Station 5 for Travis Owens, a 25-year veteran of the St. Joseph Fire Department who died after fighting a long battle with liver cancer.

As time passes and memories fade, the reminders of Owens and the profound mark he left on St. Joseph and firefighter safety will live on for generations thanks to the passage of House Bill No. 499, which officially designated a nearly two-mile stretch of highway in St. Joseph in his honor.

Drivers making the daily commute along State Highway 6 and Frederick Boulevard from the East Hills Shopping Center to North Riverside Road will now know it as Firefighter Travis Owens Memorial Highway. The sign will be maintained by the Missouri Department of Transportation.

“Don’t let him not being here make his memory go away. I love that,” said Rachel Gibson, who was married to Travis for 20 years. “It was something that I wanted done just to keep people saying his name.”

For friends and fellow firefighters who worked alongside Owens — some for more than 20 years — the sign serves as a proud reminder of the wide-ranging impact of one of the department’s most beloved firefighters.

“It is very meaningful. I mean, especially the people that knew him,” Battalion Chief Mike Wacker said about the memorial highway. “He’d do anything for you if you needed help.”

State Representative and former St. Joseph mayor Bill Falkner — a friend of Owens — was instrumental in getting the bill initiated and assisting Owens’ former wife Rachel through the process

“He was such a good community supporter, he was always a part of it, he wanted to shine a positive light on the firefighters and on the firefighters union,” Falkner said. “It was always easy to work with Travis.”

A lifelong St. Joseph resident and 1985 Benton High School graduate, Owens served in the U.S. Army for more than a decade before dedicating his life to being a firefighter and EMT in St. Joseph. Owens was the recipient of the SJFD Lifesaving Award, an honor Wacker said he arguably could have received multiple times after heroic actions on the job.

Few incidents were as noteworthy as the afternoon of Oct. 12, 2005. Owens was off duty meeting with Missouri Rep. Sam Graves for union work when a large explosion occurred at the new Triumph Foods facility due to a natural gas leak, killing one person and injuring 20 others. Despite the meeting, Owens rushed down to the facility and borrowed another firefighter’s gear before racing into the structure where he helped rescue a person who had become trapped.

“What I remember most about Travis — Travis was a monumental man, both on and off the job,” Assistant Fire Chief Jamie McVicker said. "(He) cared for his brothers and sisters on the job here.”

Throughout his firefighting career, his journey went from battling fires to fighting on behalf of St. Joseph firefighters and their health and livelihoods as president of the IAFF Local 77.

His battle with cancer and subsequent calls to prioritize firefighter safety measures served as a wake-up call that’s helped shape the department into what it is today. New fire stations built in St. Joseph are more equipped than ever to keep firefighters safe from toxic fumes and soot that collect on their clothing and bodies while working which can cause cancer and other diseases.

“Just this last year, we started a new wellness fitness program that really hones in on taking care of ourselves. What are the major causes of cancer and how can we eliminate that?” McVicker said. “It doesn’t have Travis’ name on it, but Travis, his name is all over it.”

Wacker remembers Owens’ fiery and competitive spirit, whether that was playing outfield on the fire department’s softball team or coaching his daughter’s basketball teams. He was the type of father who’d do anything for his family.

“I’ll never forget ... we were in a tournament playing a team that we knew was good,” said Baylor Owens, Travis’ daughter. “At the end, it came down to me shooting free throws to win the game. And my dad is not a flexible person at all. I made the game-winning free throw and I see him and he does a toe touch on the sidelines and it’s just something that will always stick with me and makes me laugh.”

She often encounters people — both friends and strangers — who stop to tell her a new story of Travis’ heroism or compassion. Between new stories of her father and seeing his name memorialized, it’s a reminder she’ll always have now of the impact her father had on so many people’s lives.

“It means so much to me and my family,” she said. “I drive by it every day on my way to work. It makes me smile every time I see it.”

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