Hundreds gather to honor Fla. firefighter who gave his life in rescue effort

Michael Freeland "always placed the needs of others above himself," said Jacksonville Fire Chief Keith Powers. "He had a servant's heart"

Teresa Stepzinski
The Florida Times-Union

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Hundreds celebrated the life of Jacksonville firefighter Michael Lee Freeland — honoring him as having "a servant's heart" who always put others above himself and sacrificed his life trying to rescue a stranger.

Freeland, an engineer with Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, collapsed just after midnight on Nov. 11 while trying to extricate a woman trapped inside a U-Haul truck that crashed along Aviation Avenue outside Cecil Airport. He was declared dead after being rushed to UF Health Jacksonville.

Michael Freeland, 36, had served with the department for seven years.
Michael Freeland, 36, had served with the department for seven years. (Photo/Tribune News Service)

Saturday morning, Freeland's family, friends and fellow firefighters from Jacksonville and neighboring communities came together for his funeral at Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church, 1118 W. Beaver St. in downtown Jacksonville.

Jacksonville Fire Chief Keith Powers told the mourners that Freeland had "a servant's heart" as defined a someone who has the mindset or a desire to selflessly and sacrificially serve others." That definition perfectly described Freeland, Powers said.

"He always placed the needs of others above himself," Powers said. "You see, Mike had a servant's heart. He had a servant's heart at home and he had a servant's heart at work."

Freeland was among the first to volunteer to help with COVID-19 testing and vaccinations although it exposed him to a greater risk of catching the virus. He was still doing that additional volunteer work at the time of his death, Powers said.

"Mike did as he always did and placed the well-being of others above his own safety. He chose service above self. You see, Mike had a servant's heart," said Powers, noting Freeland always was a respectful person.

"Mike believed that you got what you give and he always showed respect to everyone he met," Powers also said.

Freeland, 36, had served with the department seven years. He was assigned to Station 73.

The truck crash was less than a mile from the station. The truck hit a power pole, caving in the front end making it difficult to get the woman out. Freeland didn't hesitate. He climbed into the back of the truck in an attempt to get her. He collapsed as he was stepping out, Powers previously said.

"Mike was willing to do anything to save that lady trapped in that wreckage including laying down his own life," Powers said. "And Mike did what he always did, he placed service before self and put his life in place of hers. You see, Mike had a servant's heart."

Freeland's cousin and co-worker JFRD Lt. Darius Holsey said they arrived together at JFRD in April 2014 and had been at each other's side since then.

"Mike was such a loving, caring guy but most of all he was consistent," said Holsey, noting that he is dedicating his career to Freeland. He also praised Freeland's mother, Terona S. Feacher, for being "a blueprint as a good mother."

"Rest in peace, cousin. We've got it from here," Holsey said.

Charles E. Moreland, city director of community and international affairs, who's also a 30-year JFRD veteran including serving as director/fire chief, described Freeland as "an exceptional young man."

"He leaves this world a hero and he will never, never be forgotten," Moreland said.

Moreland also read aloud a letter of condolence from Mayor Lenny Curry to Freeland's family. Curry offered his "deepest sympathies" on Freeland's passing. The city owes him "a great deal of gratitude for his sacrifice and courage."

JFRD fire trucks and rescue vehicles with a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office motorcycle escort led the funeral procession to Evergreen Cemetery, where Freeland was laid to rest.

Powers said Freeland's name will be added on Dec. 8 to the department's Fallen Firefighter Memorial at Fire Station 1 at 600 N. Liberty St. in downtown Jacksonville.

Freeland is the third Jacksonville firefighter to lose his life this year.

Capt. Thomas Barber, 51, died June 14. The 21-year veteran's cause of death was not released. Then on Aug. 17, the COVID-19 virus claimed 17-year veteran, Lt. Mario Moya, also 51.

The funeral service concluded with the 200-year-old firefighter tradition of sounding a special alarm, also known as a bell, that signaled the death of a firefighter in the line of duty.

The mournful toll of the bell sounded for Freeland on all JFRD radios and at all city fire stations.

"And now, our brother Engineer Michael Freeland has completed his task. His duties well done and the bell rings three times in memory of and in tribute to his life and service," a firefighter announced before sounding the bell that reverberated throughout the church.

A JFRD communications officer then announced over the radio:

"Attention all stations. Attention all stations. This is the last alarm for Engineer Michael Freeland. Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department is grateful for your dedication and service. Your assignment is complete. May you rest in peace."



McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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