Barrie's fire chief hopes everyone sees the Canadian flags flying at half-staff at stations around the city today and ask why.
On the morning of Monday, May 27, 2002, Barrie firefighter William “Billy” Wilkins went to a house fire in the city’s northwest end with his platoon.
Shortly after 10:42 a.m., Wilkins would tragically become the city’s fourth firefighter to die in the line of duty and the first in 54 years.
Fire Chief Cory Mainprize told BarrieToday it was a day neither he nor anyone serving the community at the time will forget.
“It shook us for many reasons; we were devastated to lose Bill,” Mainprize said. “Also, it wasn’t what you would picture in the late night, house fire you see that lights the sky. It was an early week morning fire.
"It really took away the ‘it can't happen to us’ mentality you sometimes get," the chief added.
Firefighters had been called to a house fire at 12 Sinclair Ct., near Anne and Livingstone streets.
Wilkins was overwhelmed by smoke in the basement of the home and crews were unable to find him.
Wilkins was 32 years old and engaged to be married when he died.
Mainprize said he and Wilkins worked in different platoons, but at the same station, and he would “definitely call Bill a friend."
The chief said he was a fun guy who was well liked by his peers and friends in the fire department.
“Bill was a larger-than-life guy. Certainly and absolutely committed to the fire service, despite having only been here a few years,” Mainprize said.
“Not only did he work here, but he was an instructor at Georgian College and he’d taken on some additional responsibilities here as an instructor," the chief added. "Bill was always trying to do better for the department, himself and his friends.”
Mainprize was 26 years old when Wilkins died, but says he will always remember the day of the funeral for his fallen colleague.
“Wow, it blew me away. It was tremendously well-attended by fire personnel,” said Mainprize. “There was anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 people lined up St. Vincent Street for the service at the old Emmanuel Baptist Church. It was a really big deal here at the time, as it should be.”
Mainprize called Wilkins' death “one of, if not the most, difficult times for the service and the city.”
Changes to the day-to-day operations were already coming to Barrie Fire and Emergency Services, not just because of Wilkins’ death, but due to the city rapid growth.
“There were certainly some recommendations that came from the coroner’s inquest, but a lot of them the department had already taken action on,” Mainprize said.
“The department has changed a lot in 18 years," he added. "We’ve more than doubled in size. When that incident occurred, we experienced tremendous growth, as from 1998 to 2004 we had hired a lot of new people. Stations 4 and 5 had just come in. We had single-truck calls and now we were having multi-truck calls.”
Today’s 18-year anniversary is not the usual round number one would use to mourn a friend's death, but the chief said the celebration of life happens every year.
Each year, firefighters gather around the station flag poles where the flags have been lowered.
“Often, there are a few words at an internal recognition that we do as a crew and that will probably never stop,” Mainprize said. “I was actually just doing some math yesterday and there are 50 of us that still work here, of the 187 staff we currently have, who were employed when that happened.
“Every year or so, there are less and less of us here from that time, but it will certainly never, ever be forgotten.”
There's a special stone resting among some flowers and trees at Station No. 3 on Big Bay Point Road in the city's south end that has been dedicated to Wilkins' memory.
The inscription reads:
"In memory of William Jonathan 'Billy' Wilkins
May 27, 2002
Who gave the supreme sacrifice serving the citizens of Barrie"