KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Hundreds of police officers and firefighters from across the Midwest joined community members in Kalamazoo Wednesday to honor Comstock Township Fire Chief Ed Switalski, who was hit by a vehicle and killed last week while responding to a call.
It took firefighters and police officers about half an hour to file into the Wings Event Center for the funeral. The chief was laid to rest with full honors, including the presentation of a duty medal, a bell ceremony, taps, a flag folding, a three-volley salute and his final call.
Scroll down to watch video of the procession and funeral. App users can click here to watch.
Portage Fire & Rescue Chaplain Kevin Hovenkamp told the story about how he was called to the scene of the crash along I-94 because a firefighter was down. He went to the where the crash happened and met the firefighters who lost their leader.
“I looked on his crew as they sat in a circle around him, not willing to leave their chief,” Hovenkamp aid.
The chaplain prayed over the chief before fellow first responders took him away.
“We lost a great man here on earth that day, but we gained one in heaven,” Hovenkamp said.
Everyone who spoke of Switalski, whether family or friend, shared a common theme: a giving heart.
“He constantly cared about others. He was there every step of the way when my Auntie Holly had breast cancer. He was there and donated his kidney when his nephew Christopher needed one,” his niece said.
Switalski leaves behind a wife and two daughters, one of whom spoke during the funeral.
“I am also honored to be the last family member to have seen and spoken to him,” Emily Switalski said. “Before he went on every call, My mom, my sister and I would always say, ‘I love you. Be safe.’ And those words were the last words I was ever able to say to him.”
“I love you, Dad, and please watch over us and keep us safe,” she continued.
>>Online: Chief Edward Switalski Memorial Fund
CHIEF HONORED WITH 24-MILE PROCESSION
Before the final call for Switalski sounded, hundreds of firefighters from Michigan, Indiana and Illinois — where Switalski worked for some 30 years before becoming chief in Comstock Township in 2013 — took part in his funeral procession.
A restored 1937 fire truck carried his body 24 miles from Langeland Family Funeral Homes through downtown Kalamazoo and Comstock Township before stopping at Wings Event Center.
Firefighters in nearly 200 fire engines followed. Observing fire service tradition, the trucks’ lights flashed but their sirens were silent. Members of the public lined the streets to say thank you.
“I want to honor him for his service,” community member Rachel Jackson said as she stood waiving an American flag in front of the Kalamazoo County Courthouse on Michigan Avenue.
Jackson came downtown with her mother, Nancy Berglund.
“Just wanted to honor the chief for giving his life for doing his job,” Berglund said. “If it was my family member, I would want the community to come out and honor him.”
Most lining the streets didn’t know Switalski, but they understood the risk he took and the sacrifice he made.
“I work for the city of Kalamazoo, so I understand the importance of what police officers and firefighters do. I just wanted to pay my respects,” Marcia Jones said.
FIREFIGHTERS: ‘WE’RE ALWAYS THERE FOR EACH OTHER’
The procession continued out of Kalamazoo and past Comstock’s three fire stations. Outside the station on River Street, another tradition was observed: The chief’s bunker gear and helmet were laid out on the apron as Battle Creek firefighters, filling in so Comstock crews could attend the funeral, stood by.
“Myself and the other fire fighters from Battle Creek consider this a great honor to be able to cover this station for these fire fighters and for their chief,” BCFD Lt. Lamar Mingle said.
None of the BCFD firefighters had ever met Switalksi, but they were working on their day off to honor him. It’s one reason why they call firefighting a brotherhood.
“We’re always there for each other. We don’t know each other, different agencies, but we still go through the same things. In life-and-death situations, we rely on each other,” Mingle said.
The chief died while responding to reports of a traffic crash — the kind of call firefighters respond to every day. It’s also a reminder to all firefighters that there’s no such thing as a routine call.
But it’s not something they dwell on.
“I like to get up every morning for my shift to do something better, something new, and try to better myself, my department and my crew,” Mingle said. “It’s a love for what we do. It’s a love for providing service to our community, for our fellow man.”
Mingle said there is one thing he’d like to see happen as a result of the tragedy: that motorists pay better attention while emergency responders working a crash scene.
“When they see an emergency vehicle please slow down and give us that space we need to do our job,” Mingle said.
Funeral procession for Chief Ed Switalski
Funeral procession for Chief Ed Switalski x
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Comstock Township offices were closed Wednesday so staff could attend the funeral.
Gov. Rick Snyder also ordered all U.S. and Michigan flags lowered to half-staff Wednesday in honor of Switalski.