Whitacre recalled as dedicated, good sport
By Joe Beck -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- At 2:05 p.m. Saturday, eight somber young men raised a casket outside Winchester Church of God and inserted it into the back of Engine 14 of the Gore Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company.
Zachary Taylor "Zach" Whitacre was about to take his last ride in a fire truck.
Moments later, the truck pulled out onto North Frederick Pike and headed for a private interment in Gore. The truck was accompanied by a procession of vehicles from departments as far away as Pennsylvania and New York, their lights flashing furiously.
Chief Don Jackson of the Gainsboro Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company estimated before the funeral that more than 1,000 people and 100 fire department vehicles were traveling to the church to honor the memory of the 21-year-old firefighter.
He died early Monday morning in a traffic crash while responding to a house fire in neighboring Hampshire County, W.Va. The crash happened at around 4 a.m. on U.S. 50 near Capon Bridge, according to Virginia State Police. Whitacre was riding in the rear of a tanker driven by his father, Donald A. Whitacre Jr., 44, when the vehicle slid out of control on the icy road and struck an embankment.
Jackson wiped away a tear as he reflected on the loss, a tragedy keenly felt by his company. Gainsboro was one of the companies on the scene of the fire Monday morning when Zachary Whitacre lost his life.
Jackson said he and members of his company know the Whitacre family and the Gore and Gainsboro companies are "very close."
"It's a tragedy, that's all I can say," Jackson said. "The fire service is a brotherhood, and we're leaning on each other."
Gore Fire Chief Steve Holliday was unavailable to the media throughout the day, but Jackson said the Gore chief asked him to pass along his gratitude for the outpouring of aid and sympathy from the community and fire departments throughout the region.
The sun shone brightly and flags were snapping in the stiff breeze as five vehicles from the Gore company pulled up in front of the church with a motorcycle escort a few minutes before the funeral service began.
Holliday, his face anguished, emerged from one of the vehicles and exchanged hugs with other firefighters gathered outside the church entrance.
Zachary Whitacre's flag-draped casket waited inside as the Gore firefighters marched into the church single file followed by the rest of the attendees.
He had been a volunteer firefighter for only about a year, but the theme of the service left no doubt that he defined himself through the fire service, and he left a deep impression on his colleagues.
They paid tribute to a quiet, reserved young man who sometimes showed a surprising wit and remembered him as a good sport when he became the target of firehouse pranks.
"Zachary learned at a young age he was destined to help others," Chief Dennis Linaburg of the Frederick County Fire and Rescue Department said in his eulogy. "It was a calling just like many of his friends and family had been called before. He wanted to be a firefighter. That's who he was, That's what he wanted to be."
Like other speakers, Linaburg called on the audience not to let despair overwhelm them.
"Even in the depths of our grief, we know there's more than sorrow here," he said. "There's valor, there's virtue, and honor."
He said Zachary Whitacre's willingness to perform simple chores and his "invaluable gestures of kindness and support" were easy to overlook but made a difference to those who knew him. Linaburg said although he didn't know Zachary Whitacre well, "I was amazed by how many people were touched by his life."
Another eulogist, Kyle Ritter, who served with Zachary Whitacre in the Gore firehouse, recalled him as "a man of great character who displayed respect, humor and dedication every day. Most important, he was compassionate."
Ritter remembered Zachary Whitacre's early days with the fire service when "he would just come in some days, we didn't even know he was there because he was so quiet.
"As the weeks went by, he got more comfortable. That's when he started singing. He was a big fan of country music. That's how he earned his nickname, 'Jukebox.'"
Ritter also recounted how his inexperienced colleague struggled at first to pull his gear on when a call came into the firehouse.
"He started out at four minutes," Ritter said. "He was really funny to watch. But he practiced, and he practiced, and he got his time down to one minute and 14 seconds. We were impressed."
Pastor Kent Woodward, who serves as the chaplain for the Frederick County Fire and Rescue Department, stood before the audience in a firefighter's uniform as he delivered his remarks.
Woodward reminded the gathering that the Whitacre family's involvement with the Gore fire company goes back many years, and "they've held just about every office at the company at some point."
Woodward mixed light and shadow as he reminisced about Zachary Whitacre's life and death, and he urged his audience members to do the same in their reflections.
"Don't just remember the bad," he said. "Look forward to the future. Zach has received his reward."