Former fire chief remembered after tragic snowmobile accident

December 10, 2018 07:45 PM

“Devastating.  I didn’t think it was real,” declared Andrew Vargo, chief of Churchville’s volunteer fire department.

“Very painful. It’s like losing a family member.  It is losing a family member.”

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Churchville firefighters joined other firefighting communities in mourning the death of former Churchville Fire Chief Thomas Hetherington, 46, who was killed Friday night in a snowmobiling accident in the Yates County town of Inlet.

Hetherington served almost 25 years as a Churchville firefighter, ultimately becoming chief.  His involvement in the department began earlier, during four years when he and Vargo were fellow teenage Explorer Scouts learning the ropes.  

“He was just eager to learn. He just had a passion for that like I’ve seen in no other,” Vargo recalled.

At the time of his death, Hetherington was working as a fire investigator for the state's Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and as Assistant Chief for the Middlesex fire department, but his years with Churchville fire brought fond recollections from former comrades.

“He would always challenge you to be better,” said Vargo.  “I remember doing some drills and seeing who could last the longest on air, without running out. It was just a fun competitive nature….  Yes with our air packs and masks. So he made it fun.”

Friends also painted the former chief as an avid outdoorsman, a dog lover, and a story teller who could mesmerize a room.

“A goofball comic. Make you laugh,” Vargo said.

He also remembered an inspiring mentor who supported fellow responders in some horrific emergency situations, like one instance in which firefighters responded to a deadly accident only to discover they knew the victim.  

“You know I remember hugging him and crying together,” said Vargo, “laughing together over the memory of the person.”

The Inlet Police Department reports Hetherington may have been traveling too fast for icy conditions when his snowmobile ran off a curve and hit a tree.  A friend who was traveling with him also crashed and tried to give aid, but could not save him.

“It’s not that he left big shoes to fill,” sighed Vargo.  “It’s shoes that we are not going to be able to fill. We just need to move on in honor of him and that’s the best we can do.”

Vargo saw ample opportunities to remember his friend, one of them the Churchville firehouse itself which Hetherington had a role in designing, and another in a special emblem on the fire truck.  The image, of a leprechaun drawn in the style of the Notre Dame University’s Fighting Irish mascot, dressed up in firefighting gear dousing a fire, was designed by Hetherington himself in 2004. 

While the truck was destined for retirement, Vargo promised the emblem would be removed and either framed for display in the firehouse, or reinstalled on the next truck.  

“I’m sure he’s looking down on us right now, laughing,” Vargo said.  


Charles Molineaux

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