CHRISTOPHER — From the time he was in middle school, Kody Vanfossan was fascinated by firefighting.
“He liked to be on the trucks, liked to be at the fire station. When we worked track safety at the races at the Du Quoin State Fair, he always wanted to be with us,” said Tim Learned, assistant chief of the Christopher Fire Department. “He always had a strong passion for the department.”
That passion continued throughout Vanfossan’s life, right to his final moments.
The 24-year-old passed away at about 3:30 a.m. Sunday while fighting a commercial structure fire in Christopher. He’s the first firefighter to die in the line of duty in the modern history of the Christopher Fire Department.
“The guys, everyone is taking it to heart,” Learned said. “He’s a fallen brother. This is a member of the family passing away.”
Vanfossan comes from a family with a deep tradition of public service. His dad, Brent, is a captain on the Christopher force, who has been a firefighter in Southern Illinois for about 27 years, Learned said.
His grandfather, Gary Bartolotti, is Christopher’s mayor and was a fireman at the Valier Fire Department.
Before he was old enough to join the force, Vanfossan received training through a junior firefighter program at Christopher. He got his start at the Coello Fire Department, once he came of age, then returned to Christopher about three years ago, Learned said.
Initial information suggests Vanfossan was injured after entering a burning two-story building, at 118 W. Market St. The building is a former furniture store, now sitting vacant, WSIL reported.
“Vanfossan, along with a second firefighter, began an interior attack on the fire. An additional firefighter later called for the two firefighters to exit the building. As the two firefighters started down steps in the rear of the building, the steps collapsed. While the second firefighter was able to make it out of the building, a Mayday was issued for Vanfossan. Vanfossan was recovered from the building and placed into an ambulance where he was pronounced deceased,” published the U.S. Fire Administration on its website.
News of the tragedy has reverberated across the region and the country, particularly in the firefighter community, Learned said.
In Emmitsburg, Maryland, the National Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial is flying its flags at half staff, in Vanfossan’s honor, Learned said.
“We’re getting responses from numerous departments with condolences, nationwide,” Learned said. “The outpouring is immense.”
Meanwhile, volunteers from local departments are lending a hand at Christopher, with the department on stand-down.
“Members of all the surrounding departments are coming in to cover our shifts, to give us an opportunity to grieve,” Learned said on Monday. “That started as early as yesterday. We’ve had guys from Woodlawn, Salem, Mount Vernon. There’s a continuing list of guys that want to come serve shifts.”
The Christopher Fire Department had not yet planned a memorial for Vanfossan, Learned said Monday morning, but will soon.
“We will see to it that he is honored and remembered,” Learned said.
The details of Vanfossan’s passing are being investigated by the Illinois State Fire Marshal, according to Franklin County Coroner Marty P. Leffler. An autopsy is scheduled for Tuesday at 1 p.m., Leffler added.
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