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Bradenton Fire Chief Mark Souders dies

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  • Bradenton Fire Chief Mark Souders dies

    BRADENTON — Bradenton’s fire chief lived his life the way he ran his department, those who knew him best said Wednesday.

    Mark Souders worked hard to present an image of strength and vitality, lifting weights and entering fitness competitions with fellow firefighters.

    Under his leadership, the Bradenton Fire Department got the same attention for 14 years, its international accreditation and sterling reputation bearing witness to the technical and operational progress Mr. Souders demanded.

    That’s why Mr. Souders’ unexpected death Wednesday at age 55 from an apparent cardiac arrest stunned his colleagues and the city officials with whom he worked.

    “This was a guy who lifted 50-pound dumbbells,” said Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, a close friend. “He’s the last guy you would expect this to happen to.”

    Deputy Chief of Administration David Ezell said West Manatee Fire Rescue and EMS received a 911 call at 8:25 a.m. Wednesday from Mr. Souders’ fiancee.

    Paramedics found Mr. Souders unresponsive and in full cardiac arrest and were unable to revive him. He was pronounced dead at 9:16 a.m. at Blake Medical Center, Ezell said.

    Ezell said the department was “grieving” the loss of “a part of our family.”

    “He was a great leader, he really was,” Ezell said. “He was inspirational. He brought a lot of things to the fire service that elevated the department to a new operational level.”

    Bradenton City Councilman Gene Gallo, who served 11 years as fire chief, also considered Mr. Souders a close friend. The two worked together from the time Mr. Souders was an administrator at the Cedar Hammock Fire District in southern Manatee, before he was hired as Bradenton’s fire chief in January 1997.

    The city’s fire department grew strong under Mr. Souders, Gallo said. In 2004, the department received accreditation from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, becoming one of only 96 departments in the world to receive the distinction, after a two-year effort to improve practices.

    “He was so far advanced in what it took to run a fire department that it would scare you,” Gallo said. “He set the tone technically that we never had here. He brought us out of a dark age.

    “His first, heartfelt feeling was for his men. He was a firefighter and a fire chief from head to toe. ... At first, it was a shock. Now it just hurts my heart. I thought an awful lot of Mark.”

    City Clerk Callahan informed city council members of Mr. Souders’ death at about 9:45 a.m. Wednesday while they were in the middle of a workshop on the second floor of the Bradenton Municipal Auditorium.

    The meeting ended abruptly.

    “It’s just a really tough day for us,” Callahan said. “We’ve been doing this together for so long. He loved the fire department so much. It’s just a shock.”

    Gallo said Mr. Souders called in sick Tuesday and was diagnosed with respiratory problems. Mr. Souders had a history of sleep apnea and underwent multiple surgeries in an effort to correct the condition, Gallo said.

    “It was a joy working with him every day in public safety for the city,” he said. “I’m just in shock. He was a gentleman and a professional. Even if he disagreed with you, he never raised his voice.”

    Mr. Souders, a Manatee High graduate, earned chief fire officer designation and was a past president of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association.

    He also was the program manager for State College of Florida’s fire science technology course for the past seven years, according to Idelia Phillips, SCF’s director of career and technical education.

    “This was a shock to me personally,” said Mike Mears, SCF’s provost and vice president of baccalaureate programs. “It was a big loss to the community.”

    Cedar Hammock Division Chief Daniel Center rose through the ranks with Souders. The two men served together as deputy chiefs before Souders moved on to Bradenton.

    “He was just a great guy. He was a mentor for me,” Center said. “It’s pretty somber here. It’s upsetting, disturbing news to hear a comrade and co-worker passed away. It’s a shock to our system.”

    Center said Souders enjoyed motorcycles, body building and skeet and target shooting away from work. But his thoughts were never far from the fire department.

    “When Mark got involved in something, he got fully immersed in it,” said Center. “His life centered around his education and the fire department. Those were his passions.”

    Souders leaves behind his fiancee — Gallo declined to name her but said the pair planned to marry in March — as well as a daughter, Lauren Elliot, and grandson, Brogan Elliot, of Denver. A brother, John Souders, lives in Sarasota.

    Ezell said that because Souders died while serving as fire chief, he will be entitled to full honors. Funeral arrangements are pending, he said.

    The city hired Souders in 1997 to replace the retiring Jim Hackle. Previously, Souders worked at the Cedar Hammock Fire District as a firefighter from 1978-82, a fire inspector from 1982-87 and then fire marshal. From 1989-91 he served as Cedar Hammock’s assistant fire chief before taking over the deputy fire chief position.

    Born in Albuquerque, N.M., Souders’ family moved to Florida in 1968.

    Thousands turn out to salute Bradenton’s fire chief

    PALMETTO -- Of all the facets of Bradenton Fire Chief Mark Souders’ full-honors funeral Sunday, perhaps none was as emotional as the very end.

    A dispatcher from the Manatee County Emergency Operations Center was patched into the loud-speaker at the Manatee Convention Center and “toned” -- or called -- for Souders.

    Those haunting multiple calls for Souders were going out at the same time to fire stations throughout Manatee County.

    All knew at that moment that Souders had been called and failed to answer, part of a fire-fighting tradition known as The Final Call.

    “Chief Souders does not respond,” the dispatcher finally said as 2,000 funeral attendees stood in silence.

    “May the wind always be at his back until we meet again,” the dispatcher finally said.

    Three sets of five bells were then rung, symbolizing the end of the chief’s shift.

    It was a sad yet tradition-rich end for a man who, according to his friends and family, loved being a fireman, loved his employees, loved service, loved Bradenton, loved Manatee County and loved tradition.

    Souders, 55, who led the department for 14 years, died of an apparent heart attack Wednesday morning at Blake Medical Center, fire officials said.

    “This would have made him really happy,” City of Bradenton firefighter Matt McCabe said.

    The service followed a downtown funeral procession filled with fire equipment from 10 agencies, cross ladders with a huge American flag flying between them, an antique fire engine with bunting holding Souders’ flag-draped caisson, a color guard from Manatee County, a bugler playing taps, bagpipes and, finally, the last dispatch.

    The service was not without a sense of humor, which was also befitting the chief.

    Those who gave eulogies all told funny stories that captured Souders’ larger-than-life personality and his love for smoking cigars and besting his friends at whatever challenge they wanted to take on.

    “He was never an angel until today,” said Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, reflecting on a terrific relationship that reached its zenith when he and Souders worked tirelessly to earn the city of Bradenton Fire Department international accreditation.

    Those asked by the family to speak included city of Bradenton deputy chief David Ezell; city of Bradenton firefighter and vice president of local firefighters union 2546 Doug Huffman; and Julius Halas, director of the state fire Marshall’s office and a near lifelong friend of Souders.

    But no one drew as big a laugh as Souders’ sister, Laura Traybeck.

    “It’s OK to be sad sometimes thinking about Mark,” Traybeck said, “but please promise the family you won’t dwell on his passing.

    “Whenever you get sad, I want you to say the following words to yourself and it will help.”

    She then began, unexpectedly, to sing: “Wouh, wouh, wouh, wouh, wouh/ brother bought a coconut, he bought it for a dime/ his sister had another one/ she paid it for a lime/ she put the lime in the coconut, she drank them both up/ she put the lime in the coconut/ she called the doctor woke him up.”

    “I didn’t know he loved that song,” Ezell said later. “That was something he reserved for family. It was really funny.”

    Tradition-rich service

    The 30-by-60-foot American flag caught the wind and soared 80 feet in the air.

    The flag, suspended across Haben Boulevard in front of the Manatee Convention Center, was one of the first tributes to Souders prior to his funeral procession and public service.

    The flag flew on a rope between West Manatee Fire Truck 129 and City of Bradenton Tower Truck 19.

    Before it was hoisted, the huge flag, which was in a basket, caught the wind and pulled three firefighters down Haben Boulevard.

    But the firefighters didn’t let go and made sure the flag never touched earth until it finally took off skyward.

    They were Matt McCabe with City of Bradenton, Lt. Jeff Lonzo with West Manatee, and firefighter Nate Bergbom with West Manatee.

    “This is all for a lifetime of service to the public,” Bergbom said of the full honors service accorded Souders and the care the firefighters took in getting it all right.

    For hundreds of firefighters like Myakka Fire Chief Danny Cacchiotti, it was a day to bring out the Class A dress attire.

    “Only for special occasions,” said Cacchiotti, who stood next to his wife, Darlene, watching the funeral procession arrive.

    “It’s a very sad day,” Cacchiotti added. “Mark was a good man. He was very forward thinking. I would say visionary. A lot of organizations owe him a lot. He helped so many. Education was key to him. He was very involved in State College of Florida. He will be missed.”

    Paul Reda of Cedar Hammock, who came with his family, called it a “sad, but impressive” day.

    “It’s impressive to see the brotherhood of fire service in full force,” Reda said.

    The funeral also drew non-fire industry people, like Manatee County’s Jim Faulkner, retired from the construction business.

    “Mark was a nice guy and a good man,” Faulkner said.

    Souders took an active role in getting to know every employee, Ezell said.

    “He had a gentle soul about him,” Ezell said. “He always encouraged you to step outside your comfort zone to reach your full potential.”

    Many were shocked by Souders’ death because of his fitness -- none more so than Ezell.

    “We have a drill where you end up dragging a 180-pound dummy,” Ezell said. “Last spring he did the drill, and he picked up the dummy rather than drag it and carried it out. I’ve hardly seen anyone do that. Even many young firefighters can’t do that.”
    May Chief Souders rest in peace.
    Last edited by Sgt. Stafford; 01-15-2011, 10:08 AM.
    PROUD FHP Grandson

  • #2
    Rest in Peace. So sad to see someone go so early.


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