Late Easthampton fire captain honored at national tribute to fallen firefighters

  • Late Easthampton Fire Capt. Thomas M. Szpila was among 148 other firefighters honored in Emmitsburg, Maryland at the 41st Annual National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Weekend. Szpila died on July 16, 2019, from complications of cancer, deemed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to be in the line of duty. —COURTESY OF EASTHAMPTON FIRE

  • Members of the Easthampton Fire Department attend the 41st annual National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Weekend in Emmitsburg, Md. From left, firefighters John Ferraro, Gregory Gagnon (retired), Patrick Eline, Michael Greany, and Capt. Daniel Constantine.  EASTHAMPTON FIRE DEPARTMENT

  • Members of Easthampton Fire Department attended the 41st Annual National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Weekend in Emmitsburg, Maryland, to honor the late Easthampton Fire Capt. Thomas M. Szpila, who died from complications of cancer, deemed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to be in the line of duty. From left: firefighters, Capt. Daniel Constantine, Gregory Gagnon (retired), Michael Greany, Capt. Thomas Rice, John Ferraro, and Patrick Eline.  —COURTESY OF EASTHAMPTON FIRE

  • Late Easthampton Fire Capt. Thomas M. Szpila was among 148 other firefighters honored in Emmitsburg, Maryland at the 41st Annual National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Weekend. Szpila died on July 16, 2019, from complications of cancer, deemed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to be in the line of duty. —COURTESY OF EASTHAMPTON FIRE

  • COURTESY KATHY SZPILA COURTESY KATHY SZPILA

Staff Writer
Published: 10/10/2022 7:42:13 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A city firefighter who died in 2019 from complications of occupational cancer was honored at the 41st Annual National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Weekend.

Fire Capt. Thomas “Zip” Szpila was among 148 other firefighters from all over the country, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, who died in the line of duty in 2021 and several who died in previous years. The fallen firefighters were honored in a national tribute held last weekend by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

“At this time of commemoration for our fallen firefighters during the Annual National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend, our thoughts are with the Szpila family in recognition of the line-of-duty death for Captain Thomas ‘Zip’ Szpila,” Easthampton Fire Chief Christopher Norris said. “The city of Easthampton and the Easthampton Fire Department are extremely grateful for his 33 years of dedicated service to his community.”

Szpila became a certified EMT in 1977, and a provisional firefighter in 1979. He was added to the department as a permanent firefighter in 1980 and promoted to the rank of captain in 1995, according to his wife, Kathy Szpila. He later received his associate degree in fire science in 2002.

He retired in 2010 after more than three decades with the Easthampton department. Although he lived nine more years, his death from cancer at age 64 was linked to his occupation.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation hosts memorial events every October as a way to show gratitude to families who have lost a firefighter in the line of duty for the sacrifices they have made, according to Ron Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

In addition to the ceremonial weekend, each firefighter’s name will be inscribed on a bronze plaque and become a permanent part of the national memorial in honor of their sacrifices.

“And those sacrifices could be the day-to-day operations and emergency services and an occupational illness that results, it could be in a building collapse, a vehicle accident, smoke inhalation, whatever it might be,” said Siarnicki.

For Kathy Szpila, the event has been emotionally exhausting and sad, but also very moving. She expressed pride in hearing from those who worked with her husband.

“He was a friend and mentor and a great friend to be around,” said Easthampton Fire Capt. Thomas Rice. “Honestly, you were a better person for knowing Zip. He would do anything for anybody if you asked him. He would stop whatever he was doing to lend a hand to help you out. He was that type of fella. … Everyone that knew him thought the world of him.”

Rice was joined by roughly eight other current and retired Easthampton firefighters at the national ceremony.

On Saturday, families of the fallen firefighters gather for a candlelight service, which includes returning survivors sharing light from a “remembrance candle” as a symbol of hope and friendship to be shared by all who have lost a firefighter.

“The connections this weekend were intense for all those who attended. Some come back yearly to volunteer their time and some just visit the memorial as it connects them to others with the same emotional experience,” Katie Kelley, Szpila’s daughter, said in a statement.

On Sunday, fallen firefighter families participate in a memorial service. As part of that ceremony, the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation presents each family with an American flag, which has flown over the memorial as well as the U.S. Capitol, as well as a badge and a rose.

“When firefighters say, ‘never forget,’ they are sincere. I’ve learned its true meaning. Their brotherhood is strong. It was evident this weekend in everything they did for us families as well as those friends and firefighters who traveled so many miles to support my family through this difficult weekend,” said Kathy Szpila.

Recognition of service

Szpila died July 16, 2019, from complications of cancer. It has since been deemed by the state of Massachusetts to be “in the line of duty.”

Prior to 2020, cancer was not recognized at the national level by the Department of Justice and Public Safety Officers’ Benefit Program for line-of-duty deaths, said Siarnicki. For the last several years, the foundation has been working to raise awareness about the dangers of cancer within the fire service community.

In fact, the International Association of Fire Fighters states that occupational cancer is the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths in the fire service. At the September 2022 IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial in Colorado Springs, Colorado, nearly 75% of the names added to the wall of the memorial were members who had died from occupational cancer.

Siarnicki cited the work of Dr. John Howard, who served a six-year term as the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and was appointed to be a special coordinator to respond to the health effects of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“He did a lot of research that identified the numerous cases of cancer that were identified as a result of the byproducts of combustion, and the combusted materials that were on the scene that day (9/11). And so his work led to the appropriate component for the Department of Justice to now begin to recognize cancers,” said Siarnicki. “And that was the catalyst for our foundation to include as well, two years ago.”

To Kathy Szpila, it’s important for others to know that firefighting is a dangerous profession in more ways than one. While those who enter the field know that battling a fire is inherently dangerous, she is hoping that there will be more of an effort to provide departments with funding to purchase proper equipment and clean equipment needed to do their job safely.

“For older firefighters, it wasn’t known that the dangerous toxins were sitting on their turnout gear, but because so many now are dying from cancer, they’re looking at it and researching it and learning that all of those toxins seep through your skin. And not only that, you get the inhalation of smoke over and over again,”she said. “I think a lot of people aren’t aware that cancer is now the leading cause of death of our firefighters. And I think that drawing attention to that for fire departments to gain funding to buy more state-of-the-art, safe, effective and efficient equipment is critical.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@ gazettenet.com.
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