FALLEN FIREMAN MEMORIALIZED
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – As the one year anniversary of former firefighter John Heller’s death approaches, his sister-in-law, Erika, is making sure he’ll continue to save lives.
“Fire safety is a conversation no one wants to have,” said Erika. “But John got that started, and we see this as a way of him continuing to help people.”
In Heller’s memory, Erika has partnered with Melanie Ferrara, a fourth grade teacher at Valleyview, to help families get the life-saving equipment they need in case of a fire.
“The Parent Teacher Organization usually does a raffle for a fire extinguisher or a ladder during Fire Safety Month in October,” she said. “We send kids home with a flier asking the parents if they want to enter and pick a few winners.”
But “dozens and dozens” of kids returned with filled-out forms, and Melanie realized that too many homes were without smoke detectors, emergency ladders and fire extinguishers.
“I surveyed just my class and asked if they had ever seen any of those things around their house, and so many said they hadn’t,” she said. “These are basic, life-saving pieces of equipment.”
Heller, 38, got his four nephews Donovan, Maddox, Macall and Rawley, as well as his fiancée, Amber Roe, out the window and to safety before succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning in the Dec. 29 fire at their 5 Walling Ave. apartment.
In January, Gabriel Truitt, 33, will stand trial for the alleged arson and first degree murder.
“There were no smoke detectors in the apartment,” she said. “It was four minutes between when John woke them all up and when he died. You don’t realize how little time you have.”
She partnered with Erika and the PTO to begin a fundraising campaign, aimed $1,500 to fill a “wishlist” of items.
“We want everyone to have some form of fire safety equipment,” she said. “Being prepared takes a lot of the fear out of it, especially with kids.”
Last year, she said, she had a student who was scared he wouldn’t be able to get out of his second floor bedroom in case of a fire. “We got him a ladder and showed him how to use it,” said Melanie. “He felt much better after that.”
Erika and Melanie began reaching out to local business, including Fyr-Fyter, Munson’s, Lowes and Home Depot for donations, which they will give away at an assembly in November. “They felt like this was a really important thing,” said Erika. “And I think having it connected with John really made it hit home.”
They are also accepting individual donations. “You can send a check to the PTO or buy something and bring it by the school,” said Melanie.
In addition to the items they are giving away, they are encouraging all households to go to the American Red Cross website and request a visit, where they will install up to three smoke detectors free of charge.
“Even if you’re in a rental, it’s important to make sure everything is in working order,” said Erika.
Since Heller’s death, Erika has become an advocate for fire safety and good deeds, keeping her heroic brother-in-law’s memory alive with a scholarship to a graduating fifth grader at Valleyview.
In May, they gave the first award to Gabby Cashman, who saved a fellow student by giving the Heimlich maneuver when he was choking. “Now when she graduates high school, she’ll get $250. We raised $6,000 from the first fundraisers, so now every year, we’ll give that award.”
“I was thrown into this situation,” said Erika. “It’s easy to be mad and focus on the bad, but I need to put my energy into doing what John did – helping people.”