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Frank Gray


German firefighter’s widow inspires idea

For years now, the Fort Wayne Fire Department has had an unusual, though not unique, tradition.

Whenever a firefighter dies in the line of duty, anywhere in the world, firefighters here try to find an address for the family and send them a sympathy card.

They’ve sent cards to families in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Europe. Last year, they sent out 140 cards.

One of those cards went to the family of a German firefighter named Dirk Fankhanel, who was killed when the roof of a furniture warehouse collapsed while he was fighting a fire.

Since then, the firefighter’s widow has actually developed an online relationship with firefighters here.

The widow, it turns out, just appreciated the kind thoughts of the firefighters here, especially since her husband was enthralled by American firefighting equipment and hoped someday to come to the United States and ride in some American equipment.

Apparently, firefighting in America and firefighting in Germany are two different worlds, in many respects.

In the U.S., says Bryan Peterson, a Fort Wayne firefighter, widows of firefighters who are killed in the line of duty are well cared for.

Not so in Germany, Peterson says. The benefits aren’t as great, and Fankhanel’s widow has also expressed a lot of frustration that no one has ever discussed the details with her of exactly how her husband died.

So Peterson got an idea. Why couldn’t Fort Wayne let Fankhanel’s widow and two children, who are 5 and 12, live out his dream? Why couldn’t they come to Fort Wayne and get the chance to see the fire equipment their father so much admired and give them some time to put the tragedy of their father’s death aside, just for a little while.

Peterson essentially invited the family to visit here. Germanfest, he thought, would be an appropriate time.

Well, Peterson learned, Germanfest was out of the question. It’s in June, and in Germany, students are still in school in June. They wouldn’t be able to come to America until July or August.

And then, there was the issue of money. The widow got no windfall of benefits when her husband died. She was now the head of a single-parent household supporting her family as a nurse.

The price of bringing the family to Fort Wayne wouldn’t be cheap, but it also isn’t a fortune. Round-trip tickets for the three family members would cost about $3,100, Peterson discovered.

Various organizations could raise that much money, and certainly fellow firefighters could help the family with accommodations while they were here.

It would be a good PR opportunity for the entire city, Peterson says.

But at this stage, it’s just an idea, and Peterson is just a lone firefighter out there trying to stir up some support.

He asked me for help. Well, I told him, about all I could do would be to write about his idea, what he hopes to accomplish and see what happens. Because, after all, what makes ideas fly is people knowing about them.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.