Many of the loved ones and spouses of those who chose to volunteer in their community as fire fighters live with trepidation every time there is an emergency. They fear that their loved one might not return home.
And that is exactly what happened to Brittany Brouwer on June 20, 2004. Brouwer’s brother, Dustin Engel, who had just graduated from Lake Cowichan Secondary and was only 19-years-old at the time, was a volunteer fireman with the Sahtlam Fire Department. On his way to a call, Dustin was the victim of a horrible car accident that took his life.
Each year, the Fallen Firefighters Foundation of Canada honours fallen firefighters from the previous year. In 2005, Brouwer, her mother and grandmother, along with Dustin’s father, flew out to Ottawa to be part of the ceremony and to say goodbye to Dustin.
“It’s always the Sept. 11 weekend, so we flew out on the ninth and the memorial was held on Sept. 11, 2005. We got a medal saying ‘never to be forgotten’ on it and his name and the fire hall and then birth and death dates. Then they also give you a black helmet symbolizing honour, and it comes with a black pillow,” said Brouwer.
But as it turns out, Brouwer was able to witness the honouring of her brother a second time as the Fallen Firefighters Foundation of Canada had successfully completed and unveiled the Canadian Firefighters Memorial located in LeBreton Flats, Ottawa on Sept. 10, 2012.
The memorial consists of a wall with the names of all fallen firefighters across the country (1,100 since 1848), and a bronze statue of a firefighter. The bronze for the statue was donated by fire departments from across the country — including the Cowichan Valley — in the form of old bronze couplings.
On this second trip to Ottawa, Brouwer went with her husband Darryl who grew up in Lake Cowichan and is now a volunteer firefighter with the Chemainus Fire Department.
“Even though they were honouring those people who died last year, it was still so we could see his name engraved on a wall and kind of almost like a finalizing of everything,” said Brouwer.
Brouwer says that to see the memorial and take part in the ceremony was a different experience than when she flew out to Ottawa the last time.
“Whereas last time it was more of a shock, where you’re upset and you’re angry and mad and sad. Where this time I flew out I was older and we’d mourned and accepted that this had happened. And now it was more of an honour to go out.”
But it was also a day of emotion and coming to really understand just how much firefighters care about the members of their communities.
“They were so amazing. They have their heart on their sleeves, they care so much about you. They don’t even know you, but when I went there the people that I met eight years ago still remembered my name.
“The day before the ceremony they did an official reading of every single fireman’s name on the wall because they wanted everybody to know that they’re still included in the ceremony, which was amazing because, although the ceremony was about the six who died last year, it was really about everybody’s name on that wall.”
Brouwer says that after her brother passed away, it took her years to come to terms with it enough to even get her own driver’s license. And when her husband signed up to be a firefighter, she says she had a hard time accepting it.
“When he wanted to be a firefighter at first I was like, no way, you’re not doing this. I can’t go through this again. But then I had to have the perception that accidents happen and that was an accident. My brother didn’t chose to die, nobody does. So it took me a while to be okay with it.”
Brouwer has kept the memory of her brother alive over the years on her own by participating in the Great Lake Walk and raising $1,000 which she donated towards the creation of the Firefighters Memorial, and by having a bench installed in his memory at Pt. Ideal last December. The bench overlooks the lake and the marina and Brouwer says this is fitting because he was a sailor and fisherman and loved the water in general.
“It was totally meant to be,” said Brouwer.
She adds that this bench was important not only to her, but to others who want to remember Dustin and did not feel comfortable going to the crash site each year.
“I would have people telling me that they wanted to go to the crash site, but they would tell me that they can’t anymore, it’s just too heartbreaking, it’s too sad. I would always go there, but it isn’t a very nice place to remember somebody. You want to remember somebody where they had a great time and it’s more of a happy place.”
Dustin’s ashes were recently placed in a wall beside his grandmother – who passed away in May of this year – in the Cedar Cemetery.
Brouwer says you never get over having lost a loved one, but with time there does come healing.
“It definitely hits me once in a while. You don’t get over it, but it does get easier.”