The fire family is wide and deep — and loved Peter Becker like we do

To the Editor:

Peter Becker’s death was cruel and sudden, and it has devastated two families: first of course, his wife, parents, daughters, aunts, uncles, countless cousins — and then, his fire family.

The members of Berne Fire Company, East Berne Fire Company, and Helderberg Ambulance were hit first and hardest, followed by literally hundreds of other firefighters and emergency medical services personnel around upstate New York. As word of Peter’s death spread last Wednesday, social media was flooded with anguished cries of pain and disbelief. It became impossible to keep track of or count the messages of condolence.

Those first to the accident scene were part of that fire family: the emergency medical technician who had known Peter since birth, the district chief who had just taken over as D.C. from Peter in January, the fire captain at whose wedding Peter had been best man. All did their absolute best; they made the right calls, and got help as fast as possible, all the while knowing that their efforts weren’t going to change the outcome.

The fire family on scene grew larger, and now there were new and necessary tasks. Protect the scene, and foremost, protect and shield Peter’s family. Work with the sheriff’s department, work with the town employees to ensure the integrity of the accident site, and then begin to process what had happened.

Firefighters and EMS see a lot, much of which they would certainly like to forget. Terrible fires and horrific accidents linger in your brain, but it’s worse, a lot worse, when it’s someone you know.

When you volunteer in your own community, it’s inevitable. When you roll up on a scene, the likelihood it is someone you know is pretty high.

In this case, it was someone you knew and worked with for decades, someone you laughed with and cried with — it’s absolutely devastating. When it’s someone who was as full of life and laughter as Peter, it’s beyond devastating.

But, the fire family did its job, even though it was heart-wrenching. They carried their brother’s body out and tenderly entrusted him to the care of others. Grown men and women stood guard, as silent tears rolled down their faces.

Many of the Berne firefighters had been with Peter on Monday night at a drill and officers on Tuesday night at a meeting. We laughed and joked with him like normal. That’s part of who he was.

A wisecrack and a joke were his calling cards, a grin, a handshake and a hug for everyone he knew. And he knew everyone in three counties. He always knew the connection, what fire company you served with, what ambulance company you rode with, even what fire apparatus company you represented.

But last Wednesday, the fire family had to become consumed with details and logistics. We had to plan our part of the wake and funeral, the Last Call in which we say goodbye to a man who was a talented firefighter, a great chief and most of all, our friend.

We had to make sure our community remained safe while we mourn and bury our friend. We still responded to car accidents and chimney fires, no matter how much we hurt those first days. We have to make sure we do all the things Peter would expect us to do to continue our primary job of protecting life and property in the town of Berne.

We call on our brothers and sisters in mutual aid companies to help us on scenes because maybe we’re a little shorthanded, or we call on them to sit in our firehouses while we are at the funeral home. Onesquethaw and Gallupville and Westerlo and Huntersland, and all the others lined up to help. We didn’t even have to ask.

They were there because they know when the shoe is on the other foot, Berne and East Berne will be there to hold them up when they need it. The fire family is wide and deep. They understand. And because they loved Peter Becker like we do.

We held a debriefing and counseling session the day after Peter died because, while we’re tough first responders, we’re human. We got together as a family, we told silly stories about Peter and his antics, his dislike for speed limits, his uncanny ability to find water for tanker operations, and we talked about the hero side of Peter, too.

We heard a story about the night Peter drove an ambulance from West Woodstock Road in Berne to Albany Med in somewhere around 20 minutes, to literally help save the life of a toddler who was fished out of a swimming pool and was nearly dead. We heard the story from the toddler himself, who is now a 35-year-old firefighter in East Berne.

Now the ceremonies and rituals are over. We have to figure out how to deal with what the loss of Peter Becker means to us. Our emotions will be raw for a long time. We have to learn how to grieve and mourn, even though our first inclination will be to push it all aside, and just go on with our daily lives.  Compartmentalize. To think about it later.

So we go on, without the heart of our fire company. We go back to fighting fires, handling car accidents, and downed power lines. Not quite sure how we do it, but we’ll figure it out. We have to. Peter would expect no less. “You’ll be fine, kid.”

Mary Alice Molgard


Berne Fire District

See related story: Berne highway worker and former fire chief killed in accident

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