LITTLE ROCK — It took 25 years, but firefighters across the state gathered Saturday at the state Capitol to break ground for a million-dollar memorial to honor their colleagues, including six from Fort Smith, who have died in the line of duty.
About 200 people braved a dreary, wet day for the ceremony, and everyone in this affair had the opportunity to stick a spade into long troughs of dirt signifying the end of one chapter and the start of another in a long-running effort to commemorate the lives of 99 fallen Arkansas firefighters from 1889 through 2012, and those who may follow.
After a chorus of various dignitaries, including former and current legislators who’ve helped with the memorial plans over the years, shoveled clods, relatives of fallen firefighters followed suit and then the ceremonial spades were offered to anyone and everyone.
A light but steady rain chilled those gathered for a half hour before the start of the event, but the rainfall halted moments after an honor guard of pipes and drums paraded onto the groundbreaking site on the mall just west of the Capitol.
Johnny Reep, a retired captain in the Little Rock Fire Department and the long-serving chairman of the Arkansas Fallen Firefighters Memorial, said he was gratified that ground-breaking day had arrived. He said organizers have set a tentative date of Oct. 26 for the dedication of the memorial.
“Oct. 26 will be a bright and beautiful day,” Reep said.
Reep led a fundraising operation that ultimately collected $1.3 million for the memorial, including $150,000 in donated labor and construction costs.
An 11-foot, 6-inch memorial statue has been completed and has been on display for about three years outside the Arch Street Fire Department in Little Rock. Reep and other fund organizers held catfish dinners, pancake suppers and a variety of other events, including taking the memorial statue on a tour across the state to boost fundraising.
The memorial statue features four firefighters representing different eras of firefighting, including a female firefighter/paramedic giving emergency aid to an infant.
The names of fallen firefighters will be engraved on granite walls around the statue and an adjacent amphitheater. A fountain will be constructed in memory of the late Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller, who contributed $100,000 to the memorial.