Eight-year-old Tyler Doohan will be laid to rest on Wednesday as the most honored of honorary firefighters, saluted by his local fire company as one of its own who made the supreme sacrifice in the line of duty.
“This kid should be thought of as a true hero who lost his life,” Chief Chris Ebmeyer of the volunteer Penfield Fire Company outside Rochester, N.Y., said on Friday.
Ebmeyer reported that Tyler had been sleeping at the front of his grandfather’s house trailer early on the morning of January 20, when he awoke to see flames. The boy managed to rouse six other people and get to them to safety, including an aunt and two other children, aged 4 and 6.
Tyler then heard calls for help and realized that his disabled grandfather and step-great-grandfather were still inside. Tyler had a particular bond with the grandfather, who was the kind of guy who was always quick to assist a neighbor or to help somebody in need even though he did not have all that much himself. The grandfather, 54-year-old Steven Smith, had lost part of a leg and got around in a wheelchair or on crutches.
The aunt tried to hold Tyler, but he broke free and dashed back inside the 14-by-60 foot metal trailer, which had become a kind of huge oven. The heat was just mounting to the point at which the flammable material inside the trailer suddenly ignited in an instantaneous inferno known as a flashover.
The aunt tried to go after the boy, but the fire drove her back. The first of the first responders arrived and sought to gain entry through the rear. He, too was forced to retreat.
“Impossible,” Ebmeyer later said.
The other firefighters who arrived could only battle the blaze from the outside.
“Untenable,” Ebmeyer recalled.
Once the flames were knocked down, the firefighters entered to find Tyler in the back, having managed to get within a few feet from the bed where his grandfather lay. His step-great-grandfather, 57-year-old Louis Beach, was also found dead, on the incinerated remnants of what might have been a sofa.
Ebmeyer afterwards spoke of the moment when Tyler had raced from total safety into the direst danger, transforming from a little boy to as big a hero as any firefighter.
“He was safe, he would have been safe if he hadn’t gone back in,” the chief said. “He was trying to save his best friend, who was his grandfather.”
That willingness to voluntarily dash from safety into harm’s way is the essence of being a firefighter. Ebmeyer said on Friday that his department now considered Tyler a member of highest standing and was prepared to accord him all the ceremonial honors of a line of duty funeral.
“To remember him for what he did,” Ebmeyer said. “This young man needs to be recognized for his heroism.”
The chief added, “There is so much bad in the world.”
In the face of that dispiriting bad, we have the astonishing good of little Tyler showing that greatest love—to give your life in an attempt to save another.
We also have six-year-old Jesse Lewis at the Sandy Hook massacre, who used the moment when the killer’s gun jammed not to save himself but to tell his classmates to run.
And then there is 4-year-old Xander Vento of Texas, who held a panicked 3-year-old girl above the surface of a Fort Worth swimming pool until she was rescued. He himself was by then beyond saving.
Together, these little giants comprise incontrovertible proof that however much evil abounds, there is also absolute good, as innate as the soul itself.
More of that good was evidenced as people contributed more than $60,000 to assist Tyler’s family. The Penfield Fire Company received numerous emails and letters saying that Tyler should be made an honorary firefighter, but the members needed no urging to recognize one of their own.
The wake for Firefighter Tyler James Doohan, along with Steven Smith and Louis Beach, will be held Monday and Tuesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 7 p.m to 9 p.m. at Anthony’s Funeral Chapel in Webster, New York.
The funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. John of Rochester Roman Catholic Church in Fairport, New York.
The Penfield Fire Company requests that all firefighters attending the wake and/or the funeral wear their Class A dress uniforms, as an honor due a comrade who has died in the line of duty.
Firefighter Tyler leaves behind a mother, father, three sisters and a world that is better for having had him for however so brief a time.