Kingsport Fire Department Capt. John Hollowell speaks during a dedication ceremony for a memorial wall at Kingsport Fire Department’s Station 1 on Saturday afternoon. Photo by Rick Wagner.
KINGSPORT — When Jack Hicks was a student at Lincoln Elementary School in the 1940s, he used to go to Peggy Ann Restaurant at the intersection of what is now Center Street and Fort Henry Drive for lunch.
And then, with a “greasy burger” and soft drink in tow, he would go across the street to talk with his uncle, Kingsport Fire Department Capt. Ray Hicks, about baseball or an upcoming family outing.
“I was 13 years old when he died,” Jack Hicks recalled of his uncle, who died April 29, 1949, while fighting a fire downtown in buildings on East Market Street, including the then-home of the Kingsport Times-News.
Ray Hicks had worked a little more than seven years since being hired on Jan. 19, 1942.
“Some of my fondest memories of him was when I was in elementary school over at Lincoln,” Jack Hicks recalled of his lunch trips. “He’d come out and talk across that busy street.”
That was one of the stories behind four firefighters who died on duty throughout the history of the Kingsport Fire Department, from 1949 to 1988.
Family members discussed their late loved ones in interviews after a Saturday afternoon ceremony unveiling four memorial plaques of the four firefighters at Station 1 downtown. The ceremony drew more than 60 people.
“We want to honor them and look at their stories and try to do everything safe so it doesn’t happen again,” Fire Chief Craig Dye said.
“We are all family, first and foremost,” department Chaplain and Assistant Fire Marshal Barry Carr said of remembering the four lost comrades.
Each family received a certificate and “chief’s award” coin, the latter of which only goes to firefighters who save a life or lose their own on duty.
Another story came from Marga Williams, widow of Assistant Chief Denver Lisenby, and their son, Ron Lisenby.
“Now when we’re out and hear a siren, we just say a prayer that the firemen will be safe,” Williams said.
Denver Lisenby died April 27, 1967, in a single-vehicle accident in Weber City along U.S. Route 23 while heading to a mutual aid call for a fire in Fort Blackmore, Va. He was hired Oct. 22, 1947.
Williams said he suffered a heart attack while driving and veered into a cemetery. His son said Lisenby also was a bomber pilot who received 11 bronze stars during World War II.
He said his father once took a rescue squad boat and rescued some folks off the Holston River and that he has a file of newspaper clippings.
“About every month, there’d be an article about something he did or was doing,” Ron Lisenby said, also recalling he rode on some fire calls with his father.
Another story came from Tommy Harvel, son of Capt. Henry Harvel. The younger Harvel said he all but grew up in the fire department, where his father was hired May 3, 1962.
“I’m an only child and I grew up around these fire departments,” Tommy Harvel said, recalling that he and his mother would bring his father dinner at the fire hall.
He said the family also kept up with fire calls on the scanner and that he rode to calls with his father.
“My dad was a fireman all the way. He lived, ate and breathed the fire department,” Tommy Harvel said.
Henry Harvel died Jan. 26, 1987, of a heart attack he suffered while on duty at Station 4 on Stone Drive.
The fourth story is about a grandson who followed his grandfather’s and mother’s footsteps to become a fireman.
Marcus Dykes, a 12-year firefighter with the Kingsport department, credited a good part of his inclination to become a firefighter to his late grandfather, Capt. Charles Berry, who died Jan. 5, 1988. He also cited his mother, Susan Greer, for performing eight years of volunteer work with the Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department.
Berry, who went to work for the fire department in 1966, was en route to a fire in the Cook’s Valley area when a single-vehicle accident took his life in an apparatus roll-over.
Dykes attended Saturday’s ceremony with his mother and grandmother, Helen Berry. Dykes was 9 when Charles Berry died.
Dykes went to EMT school in the mid- to late 1990s before being hired by the fire department in October 2001.
“That had a lot to do with me coming out here, too, because of mom,” said Dykes, a firefighter paramedic.
Dye, a 30-year firefighter who has headed the department for nine years, said some of the younger members of the department pushed for the memorials for the four fallen firefighters.
“It’s good we finally caught up with all this,” Dykes said.
Capt. John Hollowell said improvements including lighter fire gear, lighter air packs and better apparatuses have helped reduce firefighter deaths over the years.
Carr said that in many ways firefighters can trace their roots back to sixth century Knights of St. John, who during the crusades selflessly protected Jerusalem from attacks that included napalm-filled fire bottles.
He also cited Colossians 3:12-13 from the New International Version of the Bible, which calls for God’s people to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” — which he said are all virtues of the family of firefighters.