In wake of deadly collapse, a community mourns firefighter

Saturday, February 22, 2014 | 10:10 p.m. CST; updated 6:27 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 23, 2014
Students, members of the community and residents of University Village came together to hold a candlelight vigil for Lt. Bruce Britt. The firefighter died as he was helping evacuate the University of Missouri-run housing complex

COLUMBIA – Most of them never met him.

They'd never seen him before, wouldn't have recognized him if they passed him on the street, and certainly couldn't know that members of his family saw him as a modern-day cowboy.

Most had never heard his name before. All they knew was that he was a firefighter. All they knew was that he died because he was trying to save their lives.

But they gathered Saturday evening near the spot where he was fatally injured to honor him. The residents of University Village and members of the community banded together in the cold, holding flowers and candles that flickered in the wind.

Why were they out there?

"Community," Dorothy Atuhura, a University Village resident, answered. "Someone has given to the community; we ought to give to them."

Lt. Bruce Britt of the Columbia Fire Department died Saturday morning because of injuries he sustained while trying to evacuate residents from the MU-run apartment complex when part of the complex's balcony walkway collapsed. Britt was trapped under the concrete debris when more of the balcony gave way. 

"He dedicated his life to save our lives," said Ibrahem Jasim, the resident manager of University Village who organized the vigil. He sent an email to residents earlier on Saturday inviting them to light candles and express their grief over Britt's death.

About 70 people — mostly students and residents of the complex — gathered outside building 707, where the walkway collapsed early Saturday morning. Candles were lit and silently passed among members of the group, who huddled around a picnic table and helped keep one another's candles burning in the sharp February wind. 

"I'm very pleased to see this sort of student-generated memorial," said MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, who was also in attendance. "It's both heartbreaking and heartwarming." 

Britt was a 23-year veteran of the Fire Department. There hasn't been a Columbia firefighter killed in the line of duty since before Britt joined the force. 

The last time a Columbia firefighter died while trying to save others was in 1986, according to Steven Sapp, a former spokesman for the Columbia Fire Department.

In response to Britt's death, civic and community leaders marked his passing and expressed condolences to his friends and family.  

"The City of Columbia family is devastated by this tragic loss of one of our own," City Manager Mike Matthes said in a statement released Saturday. "As an organization and as individuals, we will do everything we can to support the Britt family, the men and women of the Columbia Fire Department and employees who mourn for Lieutenant Britt."

Mayor Bob McDavid reached out to mourners on behalf of the city of Columbia, saying the City Council extends its "deepest sorrow and condolences" to Britt's family. 

"This is a family matter," Loftin said at a press conference Saturday. "A family of a man, a family of a firefighting department and a family of an entire community."

Britt is being memorialized — by these officials and the mourners gathered at University Village — as someone who was willing to sacrifice himself for others. 

This was the side of Britt his family was accustomed to. But they also saw beyond the rough exterior and heavy jacket of a firefighter. He was a modern-day John Wayne, his daughter Katlyn Garrett said. He'd always dress in a cowboy hat and Western attire when he wasn't in his Fire Department uniform.

"Tough on the outside but caring on the inside," Garrett called him.

"In the end, he gave it all for someone he didn't know,"  she said.

Supervising editor is Edward Hart.

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