Goodbye Jeff, and Godspeed
Hundreds of firemen from across Alaska walked solemnly down Fifth Avenue in Anchorage on March 15 to pay tribute to Anchorage Fire Department Senior Capt. Jeffery Bayless, 51, who collapsed during a training exercise on March 7.
Wearing only dress blues and thin, white gloves, fire and rescue personnel walked in silent procession while a large flag fluttered in the breeze overhead. Fire and rescue trucks followed behind, their lights flashing, their alarms turned off.
It was dignified and stark and strangely beautiful.
The honor procession, which began at Fire Station 1 on Fifth Avenue and Cordova Street, ended at the Egan Center, where Engine 11 out of Eagle River parked. Station 11 fire personnel stood on both sides of the truck as if guarding it or perhaps keeping it company. Tucked on the truck’s upper level was Bayless’ casket, covered with a flag, the edge drifting lazily in the breeze.
It was a sunny day, the skies clear, the air cold. The Station 11 firefighters stood outside for over an hour. They stood silent and unmoving, their eyes straight ahead, their hands occasionally tightening against the chill.
After the procession completed, Station 11 personnel brought Bayless’ casket down from the top reaches of the rig. Standing in two straight lines, they handed it along to one another, each pair of hands holding it for a moment, some of them lingering as if wishing to carry a piece of the burden.
The casket was then carried inside and placed beside Bayless’ firefighter jacket and boots.
The service was short and poignant.
AFD fire chief Chris Bushue said that Bayless had liked his job, a lot.
“Sometimes it’s not the most pleasant job, and you’re dealing with people on the worst day of their lives, but in the time I worked with him I never remember him having anything but positive attitude,” he said. “He was absolutely always treating people with respect.”
Bayless’ helmt was presented to his family.
One’s helmet, Bushue said, is symbolic to a firefighter. It’s meant to protect them, and it’s with them all the time.
“It’s just a plastic helmet but it tends to mean more,” he said. “It becomes a little bit of who you are.”
Rocky Anzell, committee member of the Fallen Firefighter Memorial Statue Foundation (the statue is located at Fifth Avenue and A Street), had known Bayless from back in the days when Bayless used to play with his nephews. According to Anzell, Bayless was “nuts and bolts” in favor of the memorial, the guy who picked up the last load of bricks and loaded and unloaded them by hand.
“Jeff was the person who ordered the plaques,” he said. “None of us could ever imagine one day that we would place an order for a plaque with the name (and here Anzell paused to compose himself) for Jeff Bayless.”
Lifelong friend Chris Highbarin shared one of his favorite Bayless memories, the day the two decided to make a black powder cannon to celebrate the upcoming new decade.
They situated the makeshift apparatus on a hilltop and fired off shots. The air was crisp and cold, and the boom carried through the valley, Highbarin said.
Then they decided to up the ante and double load the cannon. And so they ran a line of gunpowder, lit it and ran like crazy. When the cannon exploded, a piece dislodged and flew through the air.
“It took us over 15 minutes to find it and once we did Jeff said, ‘This looks OK, I think we can rebuild it,’” Highbarin said with a laugh.
Pastor Paul Steiner remembered the times he had lunch with Bayless at Vagabond Blues, and they talked about life and the Lord and the trips they wanted to take.
“He had a special quality about him,” Steiner said. “I know Jeff differently than most of you, (I know him) as an extravagant, exuberant worshipper.”
Whenever Steiner saw him, he felt a little better, a little stronger.
“He was an amazing guy,” he said.
The memorial ended with the Bell Ceremony, a tradition that signifies a firefighter’s last call, his last tour.
The bell chimed three times, paused, chimed three times, paused, chimed three times. And then it was silent.
Until bagpies rang out, the sound beating hard and fierce and full.