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City honors Detroit firefighter who gave his life trying to rescue girls from river

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Chanel Stitt
Detroit Free Press
(TNS)

A firefighter who served for 26 years. A father who saw his daughters as his world. An avid storyteller. An excellent lamb chop cook. An inspiration and so much more. 

Detroit Fire Department Sgt. Sivad Johnson was honored during a memorial service Monday after disappearing in the Detroit River on Aug. 21 while trying to rescue two girls who were drowning off Belle Isle Beach. 

The words of Johnson’s Final Watch echoed during the memorial service at Detroit Public Safety Headquarter after many hugs, memories, laughs and tears were shared. 

“Sergeant Sivad Johnson, we thank you for your distinguished service. You will never be forgotten. Your devotion to your family, friends and the fire department community. We salute and honor your sacrifice,” said the speaker on the Final Watch.

Johnson comes from a family of firefighters, including his father and a brother.

Firefighters at other stations were set to place a rig outside of their stations at noon, along with sharing photos and tributes on social media using the hashtag #SivadStrong. 

Although he was not clocked in that evening on Belle Isle, Johnson’s heroic actions have been honored as being a line of duty death.

Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Smith said the city’s new fire boat has officially been named the Sivad Johnson. Sivad’s family was also presented with IAFF Line of Duty Medal and a Bible from the Detroit Fire Fighter Association Local 344.

Johnson was with his daughter at the Detroit River on Belle Isle Aug. 21 when he jumped into the river to rescue two girls who were drowning. 

Hayden Johnson, Sivad’s 10-year-old daughter, called 911 when he didn’t return. Her father’s body was recovered from the river the following morning. 

Monday afternoon, Hayden was radiant and was embraced by many firefighters and her family. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan stated that Hayden’s ability to make someone smile during a time of sadness is a rare gift from God.

Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist agreed, saying, “I think it’s because you have that ability that every child does to see the present through the eyes of the future.” 

Sivad also had another daughter, Kyndall Johnson, 17.

“Many of you know him as an artist – and that he was.” said Johnson’s brother, Jamal, who is also a Detroit firefighter.”But I’m sure that the best masterpiece that he ever accomplished is his daughters. He’s always had my back, and a lot of others, but now we have the opportunity to have his.”

Several speakers talked about Sivad’s messages of inspiration that he left in their lives. 

“‘Trust and believe’ was one of the many profound messages of Sergeant Sivad Johnson,” said firefighter Roger Harper. “It resonates deep within you when you truly and thoroughly digest it. It’s a statement he would use to describe his complete confidence in something or someone.”

Jamal said Sivad was his best friend and he was never , too far away from him. He recalled sky diving with his older brother and questioning the wisdom of it. But when his brother jumped from the plane, Jamal followed.

The two brothers didn’t work in the same fire station, but there was one moment where they were called to the same basement fire. 

“What I distinctly remember about that fire is my brother showed up to that fire and that was a rare occasion for us to be on the same scene,” said Jamal. “I just remember how grateful I was to be able to come out and hug him.” 

Outside of showing strong love for his family, friends and colleagues, Sivad was an artist and a storyteller. His artwork can be found in many places across the city, including from when he worked as a graphic designer at TDMK Silk Screening & Embroidery. 

Sivad was a part of a storytelling organization called The Moth, where he was a frequent storyteller and audience member. Patricia Wheeler, Michigan producer of The Moth, stated that he had a “year of yes” after his mother passed away, during which he decided to take all opportunities that came into his life. 

‘To Bravely Do or Bravely Die’ was one of Sivad’s mottos, which was also the title of a story he told during one of The Moth events. Before an audience of 1,800 people, he told the story of what it was like to run back into a fire to save a woman and almost not making it back out.

“He took us into that fire,” said Wheeler. “We could feel the heat rise as he went up the staircase. We could feel his fear as we realized how close he was to death. And we could feel his relief when he found that woman in her bed.” 

“Sivad’s storytelling will live on forever and as will his impact on everyone that he knew. I challenge all of you today to keep his memory going by having your own ‘year of yes.’ Believe in yourself just as Sivad did.”

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