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Junior firefighter Chris Kangas honored: ‘We will never forget him – that is for certain’

By Loretta Rodgers, Times Correspondent — May 6, 2017

BROOKHAVEN — Had he lived, Christopher Kangas would be turning 30 years old tomorrow.

Kangas, a Brookhaven junior firefighter, was three days shy of his 15th birthday on May 4, 2002, when he was hit by a car while responding to a fire while riding his bicycle. Kangas died the next day from head injuries and trauma he sustained in what was officially ruled an accident.

On the 15th anniversary of Kangas’ death, members of Brookhaven Fire Department #52, along with members of Brookhaven council, gathered Friday evening at the station to pay tribute and remember the boy whose dream was to be a full-fledged firefighter.

“I will always remember that face, his drive and incredible ambition,” said Brookhaven Fire Chief Rob Montella. “His enthusiasm was contagious. Chris wanted to serve this community in the worst way and he was taken way too soon.”

Montella had been chief for only 90 days when Kangas died.

“Chris’ death hit me very hard,” Montella said. “It still upsets me to this day.”

More than 350 firefighters and emergency personnel from 52 departments with 66 pieces of apparatus attended Kangas’ funeral. One firefighter traveled eight hours from Massachusetts to attend, stating that he wanted to pay his respects.

Kangas was put to rest wearing articles of donated clothing that combined to make a Class A fireman’s uniform.

Organized by Montella’s wife, Patti, Friday’s memorial service featured several readings, lighting of candles, ringing of the company bell, wreath laying, and a moment of silence.

In addition, those in attendance were asked to write a message to Kangas on river rocks, which were then placed at his memorial located in front of the fire house.

Kangas’ mother, Julie Amber-Messick, was on hand for the ceremony, which she called “absolutely beautiful.”

“It seems unbelievable that my son would be turning 30 on Sunday,” Amber-Messick said. This was an awesome tribute and Christopher would love this. I am very grateful.”

Amber-Messick spent many years following her son’s death attempting to have him recognized as a firefighter and hopefully, to have his name added to the National Firefighter’s Memorial in Emmittsburg, Md.

Even though the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania recognized Kangas as a firefighter, and also recognized that his death occurred while in the line of duty, the federal government ruled that Kangas did not meet the criteria to be recognized as a firefighter, therefore denying him a place on the Memorial Wall at the National Firefighters Memorial and $267,000 in federal death benefits.

Amber-Messick appealed the decision to the Department of Justice, which had jurisdiction over the matter.

In the end, the Federal Circuit of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled 2-1 that Kangas was not directly involved in suppression of fires and did not die in the line of duty. State laws limit junior firefighters, who are minors, to such activities as training, first aid and clean-up.

The court said that Kangas could not be technically considered a firefighter and therefore not eligible for the death benefits.

Kangas remains an inspiration in death as he was in life. His death and subsequent fight for firefighter status is now included in college textbooks, specifically fire service law.

“Volunteer firefighters train very hard and deserve recognition,” said Patti Montella. “Chris was a valued member of our community as are all those who volunteer their time. We will never forget him – that is for certain.”