Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Two Sons Worked by His Side on Job That 'Gets in Your Blood'

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Two Sons Worked by His Side on Job That 'Gets in Your Blood'

Article excerpt

When Wallington Firefighter Kevin Barnas fell down some basement stairs while fighting a two-alarm blaze, his father, Greg, was there to pull him up. When his brother John, also a Wallington firefighter, fell sick with cancer, Greg was there to donate his blood cells for the treatment.

When Greg Barnas, 57, fell to his death from the roof of a burning Japanese restaurant early Friday, his sons were there too, helping to battle the blaze.

It's a family tragedy that could easily strike hundreds of North Jersey firefighters, who often follow their fathers, uncles and brothers into a vocation most say is as full of rewards as it is punctuated by mortal danger.

For the most part, the risks are worth it. Area firefighters said they could not remember another example of a firefighter who watched as his family member died on the scene of a fire. And working alongside relatives deepens a bond with colleagues that already feels like an extended family, firefighters who have family histories in the field said.

But they also said that when they are fighting a fire with a relative -- especially a son or daughter -- that person's safety is always on their mind.

"If you're working a fire with a family member, you are trying to stay a little conscious of where they are, what they're doing, if they need help," said Hackensack Fire Chief Thomas Freeman, whose father, uncles, brother and nephew are all firemen. "There's that little extra thought in your head: 'Where's my brother? Where's my father?' "

Freeman said most fire departments that have the resources make an attempt not to assign family members to the same duty shift, much like military policies inspired by the deaths of the five Sullivan brothers who were wiped out on the USS Juneau during World War II. But that doesn't preclude relatives from working on the same fire. Even in Hackensack -- one of the biggest departments in Bergen County and among a handful with a paid, full-time staff -- off-duty firefighters are often called to work on large fires, meaning even relatives who work on separate shifts will frequently find themselves at the scene of the same blaze.

Freeman said working with his father, who was a chief when Freeman was a rookie, gave him many priceless memories. Those days, he said, the biggest danger on his mind was the threat of a wounded ego.

"It was kind of tough," he said. "I was still with the rank and file, and he was still the boss. And he didn't cut me any slack, either."

Wallington's fire department, which like the majority of fire departments in Bergen County is staffed by volunteers, has a particularly long tradition of interwoven family bonds.

Barnas had been a volunteer firefighter since 1972 in the borough. In addition to serving one year as chief, he was also a captain three times. Last summer, Kevin, the oldest son, became a Jersey City firefighter, and Barnas was looking forward to the day that John, his youngest son, would join them in the department. …

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