John Heller, Oneonta • 1980-2018
FIREMAN DIES A HERO
By: Libby Cudmore
The former Oneonta firefighter made sure his four nephews, Donovan, 9, John Heller died a hero.
Maddox, 7, Macall, 5 and Rawley, 2, as well as his fiancée, Amber Roe, were safe when an early-morning fire broke out in his 5 Walling Ave. home on Saturday, Dec. 29.
“He and Amber are my heroes,” his sister-in-law, Erika Heller, wrote in an emotional Facebook tribute. “They saved my babies and he made the ultimate sacrifice for our family.”
According to Heller, the boys were spending the night at the home when the fire broke out just after 4 a.m.
“What began as a fun sleepover with their uncle John and soon-to-be aunt Amber turned into a nightmare,” wrote Heller.
According to Fire Chief Patrick Pidgeon, the call came in from the County 911 center at 4:23 a.m. The first crew, with the engine and the ladder truck, arrived on the scene at 4:29 a.m.
“They could see the fire from Main Street,” said Pidgeon. “They called in everyone.”
In all, 18 Oneonta firefighters came with an ambulance, a command vehicle and a brush truck to fight the fire. Mutual aid came from West Oneonta and Otego, with Laurens covering the station and the Fast Teams from Worcester and Franklin, as well as two ambulances from Cooperstown Medical Transport.
Trapped inside, Heller and Roe hurried to get the boys to safety. “They were completely trapped on the top floor of the building,” she wrote. “Once he had them all out on the fire escape, he was unable to get out. He died because he did everything he could to make sure that his fiancée and my sons were out of the home safely.”
Amber and the boys were transported by ambulance to Fox Hospital, where they were treated and released.
Maddox suffered burns in the fire, but, according to his mother, is expected to make a full recovery.
Inside the residence, an adult male, whom Mayor Gary Herzig later identified as Heller, was located and transported to Fox Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
An Oneonta native, Heller graduated OHS in 2000. In November 2002, he joined the Oneonta Fire Department as an on-call firefighter, and in 2003, moved to part-time. He served in this capacity until August 2009.
According to Roe’s Facebook page, the two got engaged in July and had a wedding planned for Oct. 12, 2019.
“He was a good guy,” said Police Chief Doug Brenner. “I think that’s obvious.”
Andrew Turner, president of the Oneonta Professional Firefighters, issued a statement mourning Heller’s passing Monday, Dec. 31. “It is with sadness and deep loss that the Oneonta Professional Firefighters learned of the tragic passing of John Heller, a former part-time member of the Oneonta Fire Department,” he wrote. “We extend our deepest sympathies to the Heller family.”
He continued, “During his years as a member of the Department, John’s actions made a difference in the lives of our residents – and his actions on Saturday were central to saving the lives of those closest to him. We pray for peace to John, and all who he touched and loved.”
The cause and location of the fire is still under investigation by the state office of Fire and Control Division of the state Department of Homeland Security, which was on the scene with an investigative team and a K9 unit at 8 a.m. Saturday morning.
Two Go Fund Me Campaigns are in the works; the first, “Support For Amber” aims to help Roe rebuild after losing everything in the fire, and the second, to raise money to give the four boys a one-year membership to Noah’s World, as well as to replace the winter weather gear lost in the fire. “We thought the best gift for these boys would be the gift of play,” wrote organizer Meg Lynne (search “Noah’s World Year Pass For Heller Boys” at GoFundMe.com).
Calling hours for Heller will be held 5-8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 3 at the Bookhout Funeral Home in Oneonta. The funeral will be held 1 p.m. Friday, Jan. 4.
“They are both our heroes,” said Heller. “They both did what they needed to save our boys.”