By Shelley Grieshop
ST. MARYS -- Wayne Sweigart vividly recalls the explosion at his sister's home in 1983 that would steer him into a life of community service.
Eighteen years old at the time, he watched firefighters rescue his young nephew from a burning home and later administer life-saving CPR. It was like an awakening and he knew instantly what he wanted to do with his life.
"The fire department gave me something that day that I needed to give back," he said.
And he did. One month later he joined the city's fire department auxiliary unit and soon after became a full-time paramedic/firefighter for the city of St. Marys.
His dedication to the department since 1984, as well as his unselfish attitude helping others, has not gone unnoticed. One week ago he was awarded a plaque from the Ohio American Legion as their choice for 2005 Firefighter of the Year. "I couldn't believe it when they called," said the 40-year-old.
Sweigart, who was promoted to captain last year, was notified of the honor July 7 and asked to attend the state convention in Cleveland two days later. After seeking and obtaining permission to get a night off work, he proudly attended.
Sweigart's nomination as a statewide candidate was sent to state officials by members of the St. Marys legion post 323; in April, the post chose him as their local firefighter of the year. For each of the last three years, the St. Marys post has honored a firefighter, police officer and a teacher for outstanding service to the community.
St. Marys Fire Chief Ken Cline said he conferred with other members of the department before nominating Sweigart for the local award.
"It's very hard to single out just one person from the department. They're all really great guys," Cline said.
But an incident that occurred recently as Sweigart returned from classes in Columbus, spotlighted the integrity Cline saw in the veteran firefighter.
Sweigart, sheepishly, claims he was just in the right place at the right time.
"I was coming around the bend on U.S. 33 near Marysville when I saw this woman trying to flag down help," he said.
The woman's husband was in cardiac arrest and needed immediate assistance.
"I couldn't drive on by," he said. "I'd like to think no one in my profession would."
A sheriff's unit arrived with a defibrillator and Sweigart helped other emergency workers stabilize the man for transport. Unfortunately, the victim -- who had a previous heart condition -- died less than two weeks later.
"But thanks to Sweigart and the others, his family was given a little more time with him," Cline said.
Sweigart admits he likely would not have become a trained firefightier or paramedic if not for the traumatic events that unfolded at his sister's house 12 years ago.
It was the dead of winter and Janet Pierce had asked her father to check out the odor coming from the basement of her St. Marys home. After Jack Sweigart reassured his daughter it was likely sewer gas, they headed up the steps that trailed above a water heater.
Then came the explosion that later was blamed on a natural gas leak.
"It blew her back down the basement and my father upstairs," Sweigart said, adding the east wall of the home was moved two foot off the foundation.
Jack Sweigart rescued his injured daughter from the basement and the pair attempted to remove Price's children from the now burning home. Her son, Jason, a second-grader, was asleep in bed. After being awaken by his mother, the boy tried to escape the home but in fear had returned to the bedroom, pulling the covers up around him.
It was city firefighters Carl Craft and Randy Engel who found the non-breathing child in the bedroom and carried him to safety. Craft was credited with resuscitating the child and later was awarded the Medal of Valor for his actions.
Sweigart will never forget the quick steps taken by the firefighters to save his family. It's a debt he gladly pays back each shift at the station.
"Someone asked me if I felt like a hero now," he said. "I told them no, I really don't. It's really just part of our job.