“The ECCFPD is, at the moment, out of service,” Battalion Chief Brian Helmick told a crowd of hundreds of mourners at Golden Hills Community Church. “We’re here to honor Willie.”
West, 56, died June 11 of cancer contracted through his work as a firefighter. As colleagues from districts across Northern California covered their stations, ECCFPD personnel were joined by dozens of fire engines, ambulances, police vehicles and veteran motorcycle groups in the procession honoring West.
“It’s hard to be sad because (Willie) was such a fun guy,” friend, colleague and union brother Gil Guerrero said. West was the ultimate professional and unfailingly polite, he recalled, and possessed a smile that could light up a room, but also made it difficult to disguise his innate good nature.
Once, when union Local 1230 was pressing former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Guerrero tried to enlist the help of “tough Willie,” but it was more than the affable West could manage.
“He tried to be tough, but that smile he had on him didn’t scare one person, especially Arnold,” Guerrero said.
Despite West’s upbeat personality, ECCFPD Fire Chief Hugh Henderson remembered him as all business when it came to helping the cash-strapped ECCFPD cope with the pressure of severe financial difficulties. One of the paid-on-call firefighters hired when the ECCFPD was formed more than a decade ago, West, despite his failing health, called Henderson every week as this month’s critical election approached, and applied the same skills he had used to great effect at the scene of an emergency.
“He had the ability to say the right thing, to keep people on task no matter what the chaos,” Henderson said. “He said to stay strong, and focus on the positive.”
Pastor Robert Rien of St. Ignatius parish in Antioch said West’s contributions belied his diminutive stature. “Despite being the shortest man in the department, Willie had the stature of a giant,” Rien said.
Borne to and from the church on ECCFPD Engine 58, West’s service included a slide show of glimpses of his life, featuring his desire to be a firefighter from the time he was a boy. Since his cancer was job-related, West received the traditional bell ceremony salute on Tuesday and will be honored in line-of-duty memorials in Sacramento and Colorado.
“To our comrade and brother Willie, (this is) his last alarm,” said Helmick just before the bell tolled. “He’s going home.”
West is survived by Jenniffer Piper, Carmen Piper, his father Royal West, sisters Sandra Aguirre and Bonnie Showwalter, and his Brother Robert West. Family has asked that donations be made to the Willie West Fund in care of IAFF Local 1230, 112 Blue Ridge Drive, Martinez, CA 94553.
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