Late Monday night, I was finally able to catch up with Mayor Mike Collins, by phone.
I'd been chasing him all day.
I wanted to get into more depth with him about the deaths of Private Stephen Machcinski and Private James Dickman in the North End fire Sunday — more depth than a brief mayoral comment.
I got more than I bargained for. The conversation was sobering. Jarring. It made me realize that I didn't understand very much about how deeply this tragedy cuts with the firefighting community, with the uniformed community, and with this mayor, a former police officer.
For all of Toledo, this is a horrific and awakening tragedy.
But for firefighters, police officers, and Mayor Collins, this is an intensely personal loss — a death in the family.
“This is just so raw,” he told me. “You never know where this life is going.” Last Friday, at a conference, he was talking to fellow mayors about a mayor's worse nightmare: loss of fire or police officers in action. On Sunday he was dealing with that nightmare.
Since then, he has been attending to the ramifications, and keeping vigil with the families and the firefighters. Mr. Collins is worried about the command officer and the chief — worried like a brother or a father worries.
One of the difficulties is that we still don't totally know what happened. The worst thing imaginable, said Mr. Collins, would be to never know. The in-depth investigation, including federal agents, is only beginning.
Mr. Collins explained to me that policemen and firemen are part of a closed system. Their loyalty to each other is absolute, paramount, and exclusive. Those outside the system are viewed as intruders, maybe well meaning intruders, but intruders.
Uniformed officers think the rest of us can never understand the lives they live; the risks they take. And they are right.
I lived for 25 years in Connecticut, a tiny state where only two newspapers still cover state government in Hartford on a regular basis. My newspaper was one of the two. So I knew the governors, and most of them well. The current governor, Dan Malloy, a former mayor of Stamford, was in charge when the shootings in Newtown occurred. He sat with the parents who lost their children, just as Mike Collins sat with the families and co-workers of Mr. Machcinski and Mr. Dickman. This changes a man. It shakes and shocks and ages. You can see this in Fire Chief Luis Santiago's eyes and his expression, even on TV.
Presidents, governors, mayors, run for office on a platform. George W. Bush ran to be the “education president.” When they get to office, they deal with what happens. And sometimes what happens is so much larger than politics that politics pales and recedes. I hope it recedes in Toledo now.
The deaths of these two firefighters is a community tragedy, but first of all a family tragedy. Two families have been devastated. Somewhere between the family and the community, stands the brotherhood of men in uniform. The intimacy of that connection, just like the family bond, must be respected, and the community must back away and be respectful.
The mayor's grieving is that of a father. His leadership must also be. Before hanging up the phone he told me that only two things will get us through this: compassion and prayer.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.