When members of the West Haven Fire Department got the call that one of their own who served in the department decades ago was near death, they did what they always do when a request for help comes in — they responded in force.
It had been almost 40 years since Gordon Barrett wore the West Haven Fire Department uniform, but when department members learned on May 5 that Barrett was not doing well, almost three dozen of them headed over to the Regal Health Center to see him one more time.
“He had retired in the ’70s but he was a local resident,” said Firefighter Mike Southworth, who is the president of the firefighters union, Local 1198. “He lived in one of the apartments up the street from us on Elm Street, so even though he retired in the late ’70s, most of the guys on the job today knew him from going to the apartment on various calls or seeing him at events. So he was one of our older retirees, but he also crossed a generation gap because he kept in contact with the guys working today.”
Barrett, 93, joined the department in 1948, after returning from serving in the Army in World War II. He was first a volunteer and then became a paid firefighter, retiring in 1978 as the department’s fire inspector. He was the last living charter member of Local 1198, Southworth said.
Hospice nurse Erika Higgins of Orange was caring for Barrett and learned two days before he died that he was a retired West Haven firefighter. She thought they would want to see him and that he would love to see them.
“Hospice isn’t about dying, it’s about living,” Higgins said. “We wanted to make the final hours of his life the best they could be, and I think they were pretty amazing.”
“When the word went out he was getting hospice care, the guys automatically went up to see him,” Southworth said.
The hospice care center called the firehouse on Barrett’s behalf, saying he wasn’t doing well and he was at the nursing home getting hospice care, and the guys working that day put out a call to all the union members and they went up to visit him at the nursing home in West Haven, Fire Chief James O’Brien said. Many of them were off-duty and were attending a training class when the call came in, and headed over to the nursing home as soon as the class ended, he said.
“The guys went up to hang out with him and they brought him a shirt they put on him and they sat around and talked to him and told some stories and had some laughs with him.”
Within 12 hours of the firefighters’ visit, Barrett passed away, wearing the shirt they brought him.
“He was able to talk to the guys and kibitz a little bit and I think he was very happy when they put the shirt on him,” O’Brien said. “The feedback we got from the nursing staff is that when he passed, he was wearing the shirt, and they thought it was very appropriate for him to have the shirt on. He got some comfort from having his coworkers and brother firefighters on his side.
“He didn’t say much, but he knew we were there,” O’Brien said. “He did interact with a few guys, but they said he was very tired. I’m sure they were making him comfortable so he was a little groggy, but he was aware that they were there for him.”
“It was one of those things that was spontaneous but showed what the brotherhood and the fire service is about,” Southworth said. “Even though he retired thirty-something years ago, when the call came, he was one of us and he was getting ready to pass away and the crew took action and went up there. I think it was a special moment for him and his family and for our guys. When they came back, they realized they are always there for each other no matter how long you have been off the job.”