Dirk Fankhanel idolized the fire departments in the United States.
Already a firefighter in his homeland of Germany, the husband and father of two wished for the chance to travel to the U.S. with his family to visit fire departments.
May 20, 2012, changed those plans.
On that day, Frankhanel was in the midst of a burning furniture store with fellow firefighters when the roof collapsed on him.
Frankhanel was killed and his dream of traveling to the states appeared to have died with him until a condolence note from the Fort Wayne Fire Department made its way to Frankhanel's widow, Cindy.
“That was his goal. He was going to bring his family here and his life was cut short,” said Bryan Peterson, a private with the Fort Wayne Fire Department.
Cindy now must raise her children on her own as she works as a nurse and attends school.
The family has a whirlwind schedule for the next two weeks as they make several stops in the Fort Wayne area, including time at various fire stations and the zoo. Cedar Point, a tour of DeBrand Chocolate and a TinCaps game are also on the list for the trip, which will finish in Washington, D.C.
The fire department's honor guard and an officer from the city police department greeted the Frankhanels at the gate as they departed the plane at Fort Wayne International Airport, with young Julian practically falling asleep at his mother's side after the flight across the Atlantic.
The city fire department sends condolence cards whenever it learns of any firefighter death anywhere in the world if they can get an address, he said.
Cindy wrote back what Peterson described as a “very heart-felt” letter to express her gratitude that a fire department in the U.S. would send such a correspondence.
In response, the local fire department sent some department shirts to Cindy and to the joy of city firefighters they soon had a photo of the children, 12-year-old John Louis and 6-year-old Julian, donning their new attire and ear-to-ear grins.
In her letter she told of her late husband's desire to see fire departments in the United States, which gave Peterson an idea.
“Our hearts just melted and we said, ‘We've got to do something. We've got to do something more,' ” Peterson said.
As the plan to bring the Frankhanels to Fort Wayne got underway, donations rolled in to the department to pay for accommodations and travel. At Cindy's request, any funds raised above the amount needed for the trip will be donated to a state fund to benefit widows of firefighters.
Although it may not have the bustle of New York City or Chicago, Fort Wayne offers something familiar to the Frankhanels in that it is nearly identical in size to the city where Dirk was a firefighter.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Peterson said of the offering to a widow and children still reeling from the loss of their father and husband.
As the smaller, connection jet taxied off the runway it passed between two airport fire trucks, lights ablaze as they greeted the guests of honor.
With the go-ahead from the plane's pilot, the fire trucks unleashed a barrage of water from their cannons and created an arch under which the plane slowly crept to its destination at the gate.
Although the fanfare was limited when the Frankhanels first arrived at the airport, the celebration awaited them downstairs and firefighters held a huge memorial banner that many had signed for the Frankhanels.
The trio made their way through the throngs of onlookers and to the welcome center where various gifts and memorabilia awaited.
With two children at her side, one of whom could barely stay awake, Cindy declined interviews at the airport.
They just wanted to get to the hotel.