The names of two Grand Island firefighters were added to the granite memorial walls Sept. 21 at the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial in Colorado Springs.
Etched into the walls were the names of the late George Arnett and George Pontious Jr.
Arnett, who was Grand Island’s fire chief, died in 1984 at the age of 49. Pontious, a firefighter, was 48 when he died in 1994.
The family of each honored firefighter receives a folded IAFF flag in a wooden case, with a plaque at the bottom.
Battalion Chief Bryan Stutzman and Capt. John Mayer, part of the delegation of Grand Island firefighters, presented the flags to Arnett and Pontious family members.
Mayer presented the flag to three of Arnett’s children. Stutzman presented the flag to two of Pontious’ children and his widow, who has since remarried.
Mayer was hired by Arnett in 1981. He feels fortunate that he was able to work with and get to know Arnett over a three-year period. He was “highly respected” and a great leader, said Mayer, now 59.
Not content to sit back, he was “constantly looking to improve the fire service,” Mayer said. Arnett had firefighters start training as paramedics in the fall of 1981.
Pontious was also a highly respected firefighter, Mayer said.
The Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial service is overwhelming, Mayer said.
Thousands of people attend the emotional service. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a dry eye in the place,” Mayer said.
The memorial is “a tremendous recognition for the service that they gave,” he said.
Pipe and drum corps from various departments in the U.S. and Canada perform.
It is important to acknowledge the families of fallen firefighters, says Grand Island firefighter and paramedic Micheal Eytcheson. “They have sacrificed so much,” he says. Those who choose the profession do it for the love of the job, Eytcheson said.
Arnett died of stomach cancer. Pontious suffered from a form of melanoma.
In 2018, the name of another Grand Island firefighter, Jedd Bohlender, was added to the Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial. He died of pancreatic cancer.
The IAFF considers the causes of death for Arnett, Pontious and Bohlender to be job-related.
Representing the Arnett family in Colorado Springs were son Jason, who lives in Grand Island; daughter Amy Hellsten, who lives between Grand Island and Doniphan, and son Scott, of Derby, Kan.
A total of eight current or retired firefighters represented Grand Island at the ceremony.
In addition to Mayer, Stutzman and Eytcheson, the group included Capt. Phil Thomas, who is president of IAFF Local 647; Capt. Justin Ferris, and firefighter-paramedics Fred Benzel and Michael Dekker. Also traveling to Colorado Springs was Ron Tubbs, a retired Grand Island firefighter and emergency medical technician.
Pontious, a Grand Island native, was a firefighter for 23 years.
His widow, Vicki Imus, now lives in Casper, Wyo. Also at the ceremony in Colorado Springs were daughter Jennifer Hill, who lives in Grand Island, and Jackie Smith.
What did Imus do with the flag?
“I gave it to my oldest daughter. She lives in Bancroft, Neb., and her two boys — my grandsons — are volunteer firefighters,” Imus said.
After Pontious died, the family used some of the memorial money to pay for a flagpole in his honor at Fire Station 2, at 17th and Broadwell.
“The firemen themselves are the ones that built the flagpole,” Imus said. “They did all the brickwork and everything.”
Arnett was fire chief from March 1, 1973, until his death.
A native of Phillips, he began working with the Grand Island Fire Department in 1957.
Among other things, Arnett presented statewide seminars on arson. The Nebraska chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators created a plaque in his honor, which hangs at Fire Station 1. In the salute to Arnett, the plaque says “chief, firefighter, friend, gone, but not forgotten.”