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After 43 Years, Florence Fireman Steps Aside

Marty Thomas was not one of those young kids who yearned to be a firefighter when the sirens sounded. He wasn't mesmerized when he saw a fire truck.
But being at the right place at the right time led to a long career in the fire service.
Born in Maysville, Thomas was still a child when his family moved to Latonia where he attended Ninth District School, and then Holmes High School. After college, Thomas worked at a Sunoco in Elsmere owned by his good friend's dad, Tom Ollier, who was then a volunteer firefighter in Florence.
"The phones would go off when Tom got the fire calls, and one day he said, Come with me," Thomas recalled. "The rules weren't as strict back then. When we got there, they were shorthanded and the chief said to get on the truck, that I could be the gofer, and free up one of the actual firefighters. I was hooked after that."
Thomas worked at Signode in Florence, and during that time he married Janie, whom he had known since childhood. They had four children, three sons and a daughter, who are all grown now.
Thomas joined the Florence Fire Department as a volunteer, and while working at Signode he was approached to help start a plant-wide fire brigade. Later other businesses joined and started an unofficial fire brigade, and Thomas was in charge. 
"After that, I was more hooked than ever," he said.
Thomas remembered many fires that he was a part of fighting, including one at Bessler's Market, which caught fire across the street from Fire Station #1, which the department strategically protected while fighting the flames.
And then there was the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, the 1977 tragedy in Southgate that left 165 people dead. Though Thomas and his crew spent much of that May night fighting a fire at the Duro Bag building in Ludlow, they were called in to relieve the first responders in Southgate.
"We were assigned to the front corner of the building where a wall had collapsed," Thomas stated. "We were told to stand on the remains of the wall and spray into the building to knock the hot spots down. We were all young fellows, a couple of teens, too, and it really got to us, the tragedy. But then they told us to back out, and they were going to lift the wall. It turns out that the wall had collapsed on top of many people, and we had been standing on that wall." He sighed. "It was a tough situation for all of us."
A lot of guys quit after that, Thomas said, suffering from memories of that night. Thomas said that day continues to be a clear as a bell in his mind.
Firefighters "like a giant family"
Thomas came to enjoy his time at the firehouse. 
"Firefighters and EMTs, they are like a giant family," he said. "We would hang out together. Back then it was socializing as much as training. We would get to the firehouse early and shoot basketball, or play horseshoes up until drill time. Then we would go out afterward, and listen to everybody tell stories."
Thomas achieved the rank of captain while the department was still known as Florence Volunteer Fire Department, Inc. He was also elected the first vice president and chair of the executive board that governed the volunteer fire department. The department later became part of the City of Florence.
In early March of 2012, Thomas retired from where he was working in Hebron, and later that month, he woke up one morning with an ache in his shoulder. It didn't go away, and the old EMT in him forced him to call the squad. He was lucid the entire time he was in the emergency room, and when the doctor came in, Thomas said something in his head told him that this man was going to save his life. Thomas had surgery to have a stent put in the next morning, and then a pacemaker. 
"The doctor came in later, and told me I should be dead," said Thomas. "The amount of enzymes produced by the heart attack indicates the severity of the heart attack, and mine was up there pretty far, a 15 or a 16.  It really hits home."
After thinking about it for a couple years, Thomas made the decision to retire from the fire department.
"At 67, I feel that I still have the desire to do the job," he said. "But I don't have the physical strength. And I have other health issues. I didn't feel like I was much of a contributor. It was a tough decision."
On January 31 Thomas retired from the fire department, after 43 years of service. February 28 was deemed Marty Thomas Day in Florence as city council honored him during its meeting. He showed council the brass badge that he always carried with him, that he considers a good luck charm. Thomas told council what he hoped to achieve.
"Rank is bestowed, but respect is earned," he said. "The only thing I can hope for is that I have earned the respect of this rank."
Chief Kelly J. Aylor agreed that he did.
"Marty Thomas has been a great servant to the city of Florence and the Florence Fire/EMS department," he said. "His dedication and commitment are unsurpassed and a rare commodity."
What advice would Thomas give to new recruits?
"Learn everything you can, and do everything you learn," he said. "Try never to risk your life - take risks safely so that you come home afterwards."
Written by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor
Photo: Marty Thomas with Florence Mayor Diane Whalen