Twisp River Fire: A mother’s grief, times three

  • A firefighter looks out at people lining the streets as a procession of fire vehicles makes its way to the memorial for the three firefighters killed in the Aug. 19 Twisp River Fire.

When Tom Zbyszewski’s mother stood Sunday to address the memorial service for her son and the two other wildland firefighters lost to Washington’s Twisp River Fire on August 19, she seemed so very small, her curly hair, shot through with gray tendrils, trembling slightly as she crossed the stage at the Toyota Town Center in Wenatchee.

She straightened her cream-colored suit jacket and put on her glasses.

She looked out on several thousand faces, most of them employees of the U.S. Forest Service, just like her, like her husband, “Ski,” by her side, who is retired. Many of those who came to mourn were dressed in the pants and T-shirts they would wear when they returned to the still-active fires burning across the West. So many faces. So young, like Tom.

When, moments earlier, the chaplain had announced Tom’s birthdate in 1994, it shocked even the grizzled retired firefighter next to me. “Jesus,” he exclaimed, softly.

Tom, only 20, was the youngest of the three who died when their truck ran off an embankment and was overtaken by flames. Andrew Zajac was 26. Rick “Wheels” Wheeler was 31. A fourth crew member, Daniel Lyon, 25, suffered burns over 60 percent of his body, and was lying in a hospital, fighting for survival.

When Jennifer Zbyszewski spoke, her voice was strong.

“I loved Tom,” she said.

The simplest, truest words a mother could say about a son.

He was their only son, their only child. There is no one coming behind in his footsteps, no one else who will call on the phone and say, “Hey, mom,” or bring grandchildren to Thanksgiving dinner.

It was a terror I knew deep in my soul, being the mother of an only son, an only child, who also was born in 1994, just a couple of months before Tom.

Jennifer spoke of how much Tom had taught her about life and compassion, and urged people to cherish each other.

“All any of us have in this world is each other,” she said. “Don’t squander that.”

Tom’s father, Ski, stepped to the microphone.

“Tom was the light of my life,” he said, his voice breaking. “My path will always be a little darker.”

The paper in his hand rustled as he unfolded it and quietly began to read “If,” Rudyard Kipling’s poem of the things it takes to be a man, its closing haunting:

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Ski folded the paper and, together, he and Jennifer returned to their seats.

The other families shared their pain. Two of Richard’s first firefighting crew spoke for his family; Andrew’s mother read notes from theirs.

They were all heartbreakingly unique.

Richard was a fourth-generation firefighter from Michigan, who married his wife, Celeste, in 2012, loved hunting, fishing and hiking, worked summers for the Tatanka Hotshots, had a bachelor’s degree in natural resources management, and hoped to earn a permanent job in the U.S. Forest Service.

Andrew grew up in Illinois and, with his family, had planted thousands of seedlings on their sustainable forestland. He played cello and football and had a master’s degree in biology. He and his wife, Jennifer, hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Canada to Mexico the year before they were married.

Tom was an exceptional student, salutatorian of his high school class, excelling in math, physics, speech and debate. He wrote poetry, practiced Taekwondo, skied and was on the high school swim team. He loved theater and was in community, high school and college productions. He was soon to start his junior year at Whitman College, studying physics and Chinese. Both his parents had fought wildfires. It was the second summer he had been a firefighter.

The three crew members were connected through their love of the outdoors and their willingness to risk everything.

I was reminded of the 13 killed in Yarnell, Arizona, in 2013, and of Ranger Nick Virgil who gave us a tour of the geysers in Yellowstone in June.

Nick was funny, engaging and enthusiastic, a bearded pied piper whose group grew as he traversed the meandering boardwalk. After the tour broke up, he told me how he was finishing his training and would be assigned as a wildland firefighter this summer. Excited, he retrieved his gear from the office and showed me his Pulaski, the half-ax-half-shovel implement that is standard for fighting wildfires.

I asked him what his mother thought, and he laughed, admitting she wasn’t thrilled.

I told him, as a mother, I could understand.

I thought of Nick as we heard of the brittle conditions in the Western forests, and of the fires out of control, and as we rode our bikes on the Hiawatha Trail in Montana, reading placards about The Big Burn in 1910, seeing the tunnel where one train full of people escaped the blaze. And when my husband hiked to the Pulaski Tunnel, where “Big Ed” Pulaski, for whom the tool is named, kept 45 of his firefighting crew alive in an old mining tunnel, threatening to shoot anyone who panicked and tried to leave.

I thought of Nick as we visited a friend in Spokane, the city blanketed in smoke from the fires, thicker than anyone could remember, and as we drove farther west looking for fresh air, hearing about forest closures and campground evacuations in places we had stayed.

I worried when I read of the three, at first unnamed, deaths, hoping it wasn’t Nick, hoping his mother wasn’t grieving.

But what an empty hope.

It wasn’t Nick’s mother. It was Tom’s. And Andrew’s. And Richard’s.

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