HAMILTON, Ohio – Patrick Wolterman was a special young firefighter whose loss is being felt deeply and personally by fire officials, colleagues and his adopted city of Hamilton.
That was clear after the fire chief, mayor and head of the local firefighters union paid tender tribute to the 28-year-old at a public memorial service Thursday.
Fire Chief Steve Dawson punctuated the service by giving Wolterman the highest honors he could give – retiring his badge number 89 and rewarding him with the department's meritorious service award.
The crowd itself at the Princeton Pike Church of God - 3,700 people, including 2,000 uniformed firefighters – was testament to Wolterman's bravery and sacrifice. But Wolterman didn't only endear himself by running into a burning home on Pater Avenue Monday, he endeared himself by who he was, Dawson said.
"The person that Patrick was provided a valuable service to his fellow man, and that is a wonderful attribute," Dawson said.
Standing at the pulpit, with Wolterman's pall-draped casket in front of him, Dawson said he wanted to speak directly to Wolterman's wife Bre and to his parents sitting in the front row. Dawson described how he was so impressed by Wolterman when he interviewed for the job, and then lived up to his promise.
"Patrick said his dream was to become a Hamilton firefighter ... I was impressed. He was a young man with intelligence, character, and strong personal conviction. It was easy to see Patrick Wolterman was a good man and we wanted him on the Hamilton Fire Department," Dawson said. "He quickly established a good reputation with his fellow firefighters. He created many friendships and bonds … In short, he became a part of our family."
"Patrick performed that morning just as he performed every day since he was hired – with bravery and courage, focused on helping others. We will not forget Patrick's sacrifice."
When he concluded, Dawson presented Wolterman's badge to his wife, kneeling in front of her as she shook with emotion. As he rose to walk away, he touched her hand to comfort her.
Union president Brian Ruhl's voice cracked and his eyes welled with tears. Ruhl was a member of Fire Station 25 with Wolterman, and he didn't try to hide his sorrow at losing a young protégé he so admired.
"I'm the father figure, the salty old guy at the firehouse, and Patrick, he's my 'new-to-the-family guy,' my fire department son. Unfortunately, Patrick and I did not have much time to grow together," Ruhl said.
But the time he spent with Patrick and watched Patrick was special to Ruhl.
"Patrick Wolterman knew what it was like to be a firefighter. Jason Callaghan has told the story that Patrick wasn't a normal 'new guy.' He understood the unofficial fire department hierarchy. So as not to be outdone at household chores, Patrick would set his alarm 15 minutes prior to everybody else so he could make sure the dishwasher was empty and his coffee pot was started."
Ruhl said Wolterman was a straight man for the jokers at the station and knew just when to toss a zinger of his own and set off the laughter alarm.
He said Wolterman was "passionate" about being involved in the community and mentioned that he shared a beer with him and another firefighter when they took a break during a community project.
He talked about Wolterman's affection for "higher-end bourbon and Busch Lights."
Ruhl also made sure to reach out to Wolterman's wife, saying he had spoken with her and discovered she is an educator. "It made perfect sense. Patrick found his soulmate and a special bond in someone who was making a career and serving the community," Ruhl said.
"Bre, this will be tough," he said to her. "You are a strong woman … We will work together to get both of us to a better place. You have my promise."
She responded by raising her hand to her heart.
Ruhl said he thought 9'/11 would be "the biggest tragedy that I would ever face in my firefighting career." That is, until Wolterman fell through the first floor of that burning house Monday morning.
"Unfortunately I was wrong," he said through tears. "On Monday morning, at 1310 Pater Avenue, I suffered the biggest tragedy of my career. I lost a fellow Hamilton firefighter, a comrade and my brother."
Ruhl them raised an empty bourbon glass and asked the crowd to join him in a symbolic toast.
"To the glass we never got to share, to a fallen Hamilton hero, to Patrick Wolterman."
Mayor Patrick Moeller expressed his personal gratitude and said Hamilton was lucky to have had Wolterman on the job.
"Patrick was a son of Hamilton. We, the city of Hamilton, are proud Patrick chose Hamilton as the town to be a firefighter, as the town where he wanted to help people, where he wanted protect people," Moeller said. "Patrick Wolterman lived the last hours and the last minutes of his life protecting and serving Hamilton citizens. Think about that. For his service, Hamilton citizens are eternally grateful."
The mayor read a proclamation from Hamilton city council. One of the highlights was this:
"Whereas Patrick was loved and admired by friends and family, regarded as a rookie like no other by his coworkers, he'll be remembered for making the greatest sacrifice."
After the service, a fire truck carried Wolterman's body to Spring Grove Cemetery for a private burial. Hundreds of people lined the route to pay their respects and gawk at the miles-long procession of fire vehicles.