Oct. 01–CHESAPEAKE – The fire recruit stepped onto the stage, dressed in his formal uniform.
For six months, Jordan Hudgins and his classmates had hauled 40-pound hoses up three flights of stairs and rescued dummies from obstacle courses.
It had all led to this: graduation from the city’s fire academy.
For Jordan, the moment held extra meaning. His father, John Hudgins Jr., died in the line of duty 20 years ago — one of the Chesapeake’s fallen firefighters. Now, Jordan had chosen the same vocation, joining his father’s old department.
Training instructor Richard Byrd called out the names of the new firefighters, followed by an assignment — the engine number where each recruit would start his or her career.
Jordan walked forward.
“For this next one,” Byrd said, “I have a little bit to add on.”
Jordan was assigned to Engine 5 in Great Bridge, he said. But there was something else.
“On your first day, you will report to Station 3 …,” Byrd said.
This week, Jordan will begin his career at the station where his father left off.
Jordan was 3 when his father went into a burning auto parts store and didn’t come back out.
The roof collapsed, trapping his dad and firefighter Frank Young inside.
Crews found their bodies lying side by side.
Young was 38; Hudgins was 32.
They were the first firefighters in Hampton Roads to die in the line of duty in more than two decades.
Jordan was too young in March 1996 to remember the funeral or the procession through the streets, when children and families lined the road waving American flags. His mom, Allison, was just 29, pregnant with the Hudgins’ second son, Joshua.
Today Jordan keeps a photograph from the fire framed in the living room. It shows firefighters kneeling in the ashes, praying.
A couple years after the fire, the Hodgins’s moved to Utah — and later Arizona — to be near family.
Jordan, now 24, said memories of his dad are fleeting, fuzzy. It’s hard to remember the way things were when he was 3.
He remembers his dad’s face, seeing his parents together. Their first house in Las Gaviotas in Chesapeake.
Many memories come from home movies and stories his mom shared.
Like the story of how his parents met. She worked for a private ambulance company; he did non-emergency medical transport on the side. They got paired together one day, and he showed up in shorts and flip-flops.
“I have to ride with this guy?” she thought. But he was happy and liked to joke and tease. She hoped to get partnered with him again. They got married a year and a half later.
And then there were the stories about practical jokes he’d pull on his fellow firefighters. He’d swap pencils for the metal fixtures that held their mattresses up, so the guys would fall through.
After he died, it was important to Allison to keep her husband’s memory alive for her boys. She wanted them to know about this man, the love of her life. She wanted him to be a person, not just a photograph.
“Just because he’s gone doesn’t mean he’s not still your dad,” she said.
Jordan said his father was a constant presence in his life, even though he wasn’t physically there to raise his sons.
“I look up to him. … He’s still that role model in my life,” Jordan said.
“Dad was never there, but he was always there.”
Like many little boys, Jordan would say he wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up.
When he was 4, Allison made him a Chesapeake firefighter uniform for Halloween.
In high school, Jordan began weighing his career options and kept coming back to firefighting.
“When I got down to thinking about it, I wanted to do something that mattered,” he said.
“I never really fit anywhere else.”
Jordan said he didn’t choose firefighting out of a sense of duty or obligation. He didn’t do it to honor his dad. If his father hadn’t been a firefighter, Jordan thinks he’d still pick the profession.
“I wanted to be that person that’s there for somebody on the worst day of their life,” he said.
The Chesapeake Fire Department was the first place he applied.
Jordan was living in Chandler, Ariz., outside Phoenix, and figured he’d have a better chance of getting in if he applied to a department in a smaller city, like Chesapeake. Plus, he had family friends in Hampton Roads, so he wouldn’t be alone.
“And you get a chance to work in your dad’s same department,” Jordan said. “I don’t think anybody would pass up that opportunity.”
Earlier this year, he packed up his life and moved back to Chesapeake for six months of rigorous recruit school.
Firefighters in training learn about the fire that killed Jordan’s dad and Frank Young. Their deaths changed firefighting policies and helped bring about a federal standard called “two-in, two-out” that requires two firefighters to remain outside a building whenever two others are inside.
Jordan said his instructors asked him before teaching the class. They didn’t need his permission, Jordan said, but he appreciated the gesture.
“They treat it with such respect and such reverence, and they pass that down to each new generation of firefighter that comes through the Chesapeake Fire Department,” he said. “This is something that people need to know about.”
Perhaps the hardest challenge was the pressure Jordan put on himself.
Mayday training — how to save a firefighter in distress — was a turning point.
In one drill, three trainees must rescue a dummy from a tight, narrow space and pull it through a small window. The exercise replicates the conditions of a fire in Denver in the 1990s, when a firefighter died in a confined room.
Jordan struggled. He broke down.
“The first thing I went to was: my dad would have been able to do that,” he said. “What’s the matter with me? I can’t do this.”
Jordan said his instructor reminded him that he was still learning, that his dad was once a recruit, too. His dad had years of experience. It would take time for Jordan to get there.
He took it to heart.
“I want to be like my dad, and I want to be as good of a firefighter as he was,” Jordan said. “But I finally realized that I have to work up to that, and I can’t just automatically be as good as he was.”
He has realized something else, too.
“I’m making my own legacy.”
After the graduation ceremony, when the crowd thinned and the noise died down, Jordan’s mom pulled him aside.
She’d been waiting for the right moment — a surprise she planned for her son.
With the fire chief and a few others looking on, she reached into her purse.
“A few months back, you asked me for your dad’s hat,” she said.
The black hat with a shiny brim — part of the firefighter’s dress uniform — was decades old, the elastic aged and tired, she said.
She had the elastic replaced, the hat restored. She pulled it out and handed it to Jordan.
It was his to wear, now.
He slipped his father’s hat on his head and nodded, trying not to cry.
“Thank you, Mom,” he said.
She wrapped him in a hug.
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