Gloucester City honors firefighters who died trying to rescue children from burning home

This Fourth of July holiday, while many towns are celebrating our nation’s history, Gloucester City will be somberly honoring more recent events.

Ten years ago Wednesday, three firefighters were killed in an attempt to rescue three young sisters from their burning home, just a few hours after Gloucester City’s Fourth of July parade passed by the residence. The roof of the home collapsed killing two members of the nearby Mt. Ephraim Fire Department, Chief Jim Sylvester and Deputy Chief John West, Gloucester City firefighter Tom Stewart and the three Slack sisters, five-year-old Alexandra and three-year-old twins, Claudia and Colletta.

This year, the theme for Gloucester City’s parade is “Remembering the Fallen,” as they seek to honor the ultimate sacrifices of Stewart, West and Sylvester. Gloucester City’s Battalion Chief George Huston explained that the parade is in “memory of all three” of the men who were killed in the line of duty.

Though the fire department does not want the event to be “too sad or blue,” they are “trying to make sure no one forgets their valiant efforts,” Huston said.

Stewart was one of Huston’s best friends and he said he misses the “simple things” from their friendship. West and Sylvester were “loving husbands” and the trio had a “great respect for the fire service.”

All three men left behind grieving families.

A few hours before he died in the fire, Stewart proposed to his girlfriend at the top of the fire department’s ladder truck right as the fireworks went off, Huston said. West was married and had three children. Sylvester’s wife was pregnant with a child due in August.

Ten members remain in the fire department who were active firefighters in the city at the time of the fire in 2002. Huston said that “most of the guys [in the department] say they can’t believe it’s been 10 years.”

The July 3rd parade will follow the same parade route as 10-years ago, again passing right in front of the home where the devastating fire occurred. All the firemen from the Gloucester City and Mt. Ephraim departments will “join together and remember” by walking in the parade. Though the exact plan has not been finalized, Huston said they will stop for a moment of silence as they pass the site.

On the Fourth, the fire departments will again gather to march from the King Street fire station to St. Mary’s Church on Monmouth Street for mass. Huston expects all three families to attend the service, including the children of the fallen firefighters. Following the mass, a 20 minute wreath laying ceremony will be held at the small memorial, which features a statue of Stewart as well as plaques for West, Sylvester and the Slack girls.

“The devastating fire that took the lives of three girls and three rescuers” was a big deal, Huston said. It was the biggest line of duty death in several years in New Jersey. The loss was “pretty huge,” and left a major hole in the affected fire departments and families.

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