Former Jessamine County fire chief Mike Wheeler and firefighter Cecil Fain would never have believed hundreds of people would congregate in their honor, said Cecil’s brother, Doug Fain.
“They would be amazed,” Fain said, looking around at the swarm of family, friends, firefighters and elected officials who packed the Jessamine County Fire District’s Station No. 1 on Saturday.
“They would never believe this,” he said. “They were humble like that.”
The two men were killed instantly Jan. 2, 1993, when their fire truck overturned while they were returning from a structure fire. Saturday’s ceremony honored the 20th anniversary of the accident.
Dozens of people joined a walk that preceded the ceremony, beginning at the old fire station on Oak Street and ending at the fire station on South Main Street. Family and friends made the nearly 2-mile trek straight down Main Street, with police leading the way and diverting traffic. Toward the end of the journey, walkers walked under fire ladders that stretched across Main Street in an archway. The ladders were from the Jessamine County ladder truck and from the engine that Cecil Fain drove for the Lexington Fire Department, where he also worked while volunteering for the Jessamine County Fire District.
The parade of walkers then convened at the Jessamine County Fire Station, where many more waited, for the event.
There, attendees filled the 175 available seats and at least as many more, including dozens of Jessamine County firefighters, stood for the ceremony, which began with a presentation of colors by the Nicholasville Fire Department Color Guard.
That was followed by a prayer and singing of the Lord’s Prayer, and then the servicemen’s family members talked about the lives of the firefighters and the tragic accident.
Gerald Wheeler, Mike Wheeler’s son, had been at a ball game earlier that day. He heard about the accident and was in the fire house, so he listened on the scanner as the people his father worked with responded to the scene, he said.
“Those transmissions were gut-wrenching,” he said.
For Doug Fain, that day was a “blur”¿and a “nightmare,” he said. His and many others’ lives were changed forever.
Mike Rupard, Jessamine County District fire chief, also will never forget the accident, he said.
“Twenty years ago was the worst time of our lives,” he said.
On the way to the ceremony, he and fellow firefighters saw a coin lying on the ground. They picked it up because Mike Wheeler would not have passed it by, Rupard said. And then they picked up quite a few more on the way there.
“By the time we got here, we had about 36 cents,” Rupard said.
Mike Cassidy, a captain with the fire district, presented coins to a member of each of the two families.
The coins, like military challenge coins, are meant to recognize special achievements and service, Cassidy said. Brenda Wheeler, Mike Wheeler’s widow, accepted his; and Kaihlab Fain, Cecil Fain’s son, accepted his father’s coin. Kaihlab Fain was just 16 months old when his father died.
State Rep. Bob Damron and Sen. Tom Buford also spoke at the ceremony in honor of the two firefighters.
That the event drew so many was a surprise, Fain said. He said he was expecting a crowd, but not quite so many.
“I’d like to think that it’s not only for the family and to remember, but also respect for the job,” Fain said. His brother and Mike Wheeler loved firefighting, he said. The two wouldn’t have done anything else.
“It wasn’t just a job,”¿he said.
Their friends knew this. The day of the accident, later in the day, a call came in, Fain said. A barn was on fire in a neighboring community, and help was needed. The firefighters, no doubt still stunned by the accident, discussed whether they should go, Fain said. In the end, they went, and they put that fire out, he said; Mike and Cecil would have wanted it that way.
The two worked together and died together, and now their families are entwined, not only because of the tragic accident, but because Gerald Wheeler is married to Doug Fain’s niece by marriage.
“We get to have Christmases and Thanksgivings together,” Wheeler said. “God is good; He has a plan for us.”