Just up the hill from this tiny resort community’s golf course, a pile of flowers and a wreath sit outside the fire station. Two big trucks and a tanker are squeezed inside. All is quiet. No volunteer firefighters hanging around, no calls coming in. It’s been this way for days.
This station is shut down for now. Nearby fire crews take the calls: the fires, the wrecks, the medical emergencies.
Before Feb. 10, Linn Valley Fire Chief Stan Giles almost always would be there. The 69-year-old chief typically was the first at the scene, helping anyone in his community who needed him. When you saw Giles, you knew things would be OK.
But now that he is gone, killed two weeks ago in a tragic accident, it’s time to refuel. Reassess. Figure out where to go from here.
Not just for the department, where firefighters still struggle with what happened that afternoon. But for the entire town of 800 or so.
Hundreds are expected at today’s memorial service inside Linn County Community Church. Firefighters from the area will be there. So will residents who mourn the loss of their chief for the past decade.
“Everyone’s very shaken,” said City Clerk Joyce Virgin. “It’s a very emotional time for all of us. So devastating. I can’t explain the loss I feel.”
For the volunteer fire department of about a dozen, the loss seems insurmountable.
“Stan was it,” Mayor Dick George said of the chief who constantly pushed for better equipment and training for his firefighters. “He was the Linn Valley Fire Department. … Things like this aren’t supposed to happen.”
The call came early that afternoon. Nearby Drexel, Mo., needed a tanker truck, and Linn Valley had one.
Another firefighter took the tanker. Giles stayed back. No need for him to go on this one.
When the other firefighter returned to the station, all he and Giles had to do was back two vehicles, the tanker and a fire truck, into the station and go home.
It’s something they’d done probably a hundred times.
Once the tanker was in place, parked next to another truck, the other firefighter went about backing in the third vehicle.
“He saw Stan outside the station, by his pickup,” said Todd Stone, the firefighter Giles was grooming to take over one day. “We don’t know why the chief went back in. It’s a mystery.”
As the other firefighter backed up the fire truck, not seeing Giles, the chief got pinned between the truck and tanker and was crushed.
Within seconds, the call went out: Personnel pinned between a fire truck and another vehicle.
Pam McCoy, general manager of Linn Valley Lakes property owners association, immediately headed to the station. Trained in CPR, she keeps an ear on the office scanner.
She didn’t know who was pinned.
By the time she got to the station, several rescue workers were there.
“Then I see it’s the chief,” McCoy said, shaking her head. “Just shock. Total shock.”
Trained to help and save people, the firefighters weren’t able to save their chief. It’s a fact some of them are having trouble coming to grips with, say those who have spoken with them.
“Some say, ‘Why the chief?’ ” said Bill Foil, pastor of the Linn Valley Community Church. “… He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Focus has turned to healing in this resort community, a hodgepodge of vacation RVs, ranch homes and some A-frames sprinkled with a few fancier houses.
Residents worry about the other firefighter and about Fran Giles, Stan’s widow.
The couple moved to the community in the mid-1990s, before Linn Valley was even a town. A devoted golfer, if the weather was good to him, Stan Giles would be at the course five days a week.
“Those are two things he loved,” said Linn Valley resident and close friend Bill Campbell, who often golfed with Giles. “The Fire Department and golf. They say if you ever have to expire, it’s nice to expire doing something you enjoy.”
After the accident, Fran Giles reached out to the other firefighter. She wanted to sit with him. Reassure him.
It’s a meeting she’s so thankful happened.
“I needed to let him know I didn’t hold him accountable for this,” said Fran Giles, who was married nearly 45 years. “You can’t put guilt where it isn’t. It was just a freak thing. It was Stan’s time to go and he went, unfortunately.”
Her husband, she said, would want the other firefighter “to try to forget what happened and go on with his life and continue with the Fire Department.”
The other firefighter couldn’t be reached for comment. He is still pained, Foil said, but “he’s very grateful for what Fran told him.”
Stone said the other firefighter is beginning to process what happened. After talking with him recently, Stone said he saw the firefighter’s demeanor switch.
“When the conversation turned to personal stories about Stan, I could see him changing before my eyes,” Stone said. “He went from mopey to having the fire back in his life.”
Within days of the accident, Linn Valley leaders appointed Stone the new chief. They put calls on hold and directed Stone to review policies.
Stone, with the support of Fran Giles and her son, Robert, is pushing for a new fire station, where trucks don’t have to back in but can pull through. Residents of the town are helping raise money.
“The worst thing is if we didn’t learn anything from this,” said George, the mayor.
At night, Fran Giles sits at home, replaying in her mind what her husband might have been thinking that afternoon. What he might have seen to cause him to go back into the station.
Maybe he saw something inside the station, in the tight space where the firefighter was backing up the truck, Fran Giles thinks. Maybe he didn’t want the firefighter to get too close to the tanker and thought he’d guide him back.
“People keep asking me, ‘What really happened?’ ” said Fran Giles, who leans on son Robert and his family for support. “I look at them and say, ‘I don’t know.’ This is something we’ll all live with the rest of our lives, and never really get closure with it.
“There will always be a question of what really happened. Only Stan really knows.”
Memorial service Family and friends of Stan Giles will hold a memorial service at 2 p.m. today inside Linn Valley Community Church.
The Linn Valley Auxiliary is accepting donations to build a new fire station dedicated to Giles. Donations for the Linn Valley Volunteer Fire Department Building Fund can be sent to 114 Lakeview Lane, Linn Valley, KS 66040.