March 17, 2011 tragedy claimed lives of local firefighters
By Colin Burrowes and Mike Wilson
NORTH PERTH – March 17, 2011.
The day that forever changed a community, the North Perth Fire Department, and more importantly, the lives of two families.
It was the day that two men – Atwood’s Kenneth Rea and Listowel’s Raymond Walter – paid the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty as members of the North Perth Fire Department.
Rea and Walter died responding to a fire at A Dollar Stop Inc. on Main Street in Listowel.
Rea was 56, and Walter was 30.
A press release from the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office, following their investigation of the blaze, stated that the two firefighters entered the building as there was an absence of significant smoke or flame in the building. While inside the building, a sudden collapse of the lightweight wood truss roof structure resulted in the deaths of Rea and Walter.
In the days that followed the fire, the North Perth community did what it does best: support each other through hard times.
The tight-knit community showed its support publicly through wearing armbands honouring the two men during Paddyfest events, black ribbons tied to hydro poles, moments of silence during Paddyfest concerts, and tributes during the Paddyfest parade two days after the fire.
Privately, the community prayed, donated funds in memory of Rea and Walter, and consoled each other.
A week later, a country mourned the loss of these two heroes.
On Thursday, March 24, 2011, the province joined the community of North Perth in grieving as both firefighters were laid to rest in a funeral attended by thousands.
Residents of North Perth, young and old, filled the sidewalks while firefighters, police and emergency services personnel from all over Canada attended the funeral to pay their respects to their brothers. They stood silently, shoulder to shoulder, filling the streets for the funeral procession to the Listowel Memorial Arena where a capacity crowd was waiting.
Broadcast through a PA system at the arena and locally on the radio, listeners heard as speakers gave tearful goodbyes and hailed Walter’s and Rea’s courage.
In the March 23, 2011 issue of the Banner, Rea’s daughter, Sara Furey, described her father as “a wonderful, loving, devoted, and supportive father and grandfather.”
“He was a loyal and dedicated firefighter who gave 37 years of his life to protect his family and community,” she said.
“He was always the first person at the ladder at fire calls, even though he was terrified of heights.”
Rea was married to his best friend and soulmate, Louise, for 36 years and very proud of his three children and grandchildren. He was also a son-in-law and brother-in-law who was always “just a phone call away” and always ready to lend a helping hand.
He was a lifelong Elma Township resident, with many stating he would do anything he could to help out another person or his beloved fire station.
“Anything he could do for the fire department, he would,” said Furey.
A man of all trades, Rea also loved to go deer hunting in November and was no stranger to hard work. He worked at Atwood Pet Food Supplies for 21 years as a labourer, 13 years at the local Campbell Soup plant and a few months before his death he started with Listowel City Recreation as a parts and service manager.
“Many considered him a pillar of strength… he was always willing to help,” said Furey.
At his funeral, daughter Beth Rea said of her father, “We could always count on you to be there when we needed you… You died doing what you loved to do, protecting your family and your community.”
Furey, Rea and their sister, Amy Copland, said the following in unison at the funeral:
“In our hearts, you will be the greatest man we ever know, the one we are very proud to call our dad, our friend, our hero.”
Ryan Johnston, one of Walter’s closest friends, joined the department with Walter in 2008. Johnston told the Banner in March 2011 that there was no one prouder to be a firefighter than Walter.
Johnston described his friend as the kind of guy who would always be there, whether it was for a friend or a commitment to the community.
“Ray was one of those guys that would do anything for you,” he said. “If there was something to be involved with, he was one of those guys who was right there.”
Walter joined the fire department in 2008 to serve with his father, Ron. The two men served together for about six months before Ron retired from the service.
Walter and wife, Holly, married in 2009.
Derrick Frook, a cousin-in-law of Walter, spoke at the funeral and recounted Walter’s tireless involvement through the community, whether with the Listowel Kinsmen Club or his participation with local sports.
“When Ray decided to do something, he had an all-or-nothing attitude,” said Frook.
Walter exhibited a long list of admirable qualities, Frook said, and he remained committed to those qualities even in the face of danger.
“As a firefighter, Ray knew and accepted the risk that firefighters face at every call,” he said. “It’s not about money or fame, it about the necessity to protect the public.”
Remembering our fallen heroes
Then Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, at the funeral, expressed his honour of being able to convey the sympathies and support of all Ontarians, saying the act of Walter and Rea laying down their lives that day was a final act of love for their friends and neighbours.
“The brave men and women who rush in when the rest of us rush out are nothing less than heroes,” he said.
North Perth Fire Chief Ed Smith reflected on those day’s events in a statement to the Banner on March 12.
“The pain of that day for the families and the members of the North Perth Fire Department shall never go away,” said Smith.
“As the years continue to go by be sure to never forget the sacrifice Kenneth Rea and Raymond Walter gave for the safety of their community and citizens of North Perth. As the years continue to pass may this community and the fire service never forget their ultimate sacrifice.”
Perth-Wellington MPP Randy Pettapiece knows the feeling of having a loved one put their life on the line to serve their community as a firefighter.
His son, also a North Perth volunteer firefighter, served alongside Rea and Walter.
“I remember the memorial service, held a week later, and the thousands of firefighters, paramedics and police officers attending from across North America. It was a tremendous show of support after such a devastating loss,” he said. “Today, let us all remember Ken Rea and Ray Walter. Let us remember their courage and sacrifice in keeping all of us safe from harm. We mourn them still.”
At the funeral 10 years ago, Smith gave one of the most emotional tributes to North Perth’s two heroes.
After reading a poem dedicated to their service, Smith gave his final regards, his voice breaking with emotion.
“God bless you, Kenny and Raymond, you’re our heroes.”
Ten years later, those words mean as much now as they did then.
Kenneth Rea and Raymond Walter: gone, but never forgotten.
Colin Burrowes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the Listowel Banner. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.