The Dagsboro Volunteer Fire Company on Friday was mourning the loss of 17-year-old junior firefighter Justin Townsend, who was killed last Thursday night while responding to a fire call.
“The brave men and women who served with him in this department have lost one of their brothers,” said Matt Gajdos, public information officer for the Dagsboro Volunteer Fire Company (DVFC). “While losing a member is something that a fire department hopes never happens, the reality is it can happen and has happened right here in the town of Dagsboro, Del. We must now work through the grieving process as we honor a life cut too short.”
Police said Townsend was being driven to the fire hall from the Selbyville area, to respond to a brush-fire alarm, by 18-year-old John Morton Jr. when Morton’s pickup truck was unable to maneuver a curve on Pepper Road while traveling at what police said were excessive speeds. The truck spun out and hit a telephone pole before it overturned onto the roof, officers said.
Townsend was pronounced dead at the scene, while Morton was transported to Beebe Medical Center, where he was treated for non-life-threatening injuries, and was then released. Both Townsend and Morton had been properly restrained at the time of the incident, police noted. Authorities have not commented as to why Morton, who was not a member of the department, was transporting Townsend to Dagsboro.
Members of the department, which has more than 100 members, gathered at the fire hall Thursday night and Friday to grieve and support each other.
“This is a sad day,” said Gajdos. “It’s a devastating loss… Words cannot begin to adequately portray the tremendous sorrow that this small, tight-knit fire company and the community it serves is feeling in the wake of this loss.”
Townsend, who was a junior at Sussex Technical High School in Georgetown, was taking classes in the school’s collision repair program and was a cadet in the JROTC program.
“Our deepest sympathy is extended to the student’s family,” school staff wrote in a statement.
“He was involved in auto-mechanic courses, and many members of our department worked with him to get small repairs done to his vehicles,” noted Gajdos. “Justin was always willing to learn and would do anything asked of him. He was a fast learner and asked for help when needed. He always had a smile when he got on a fire truck.”
Gajdos said that Townsend, who was due to be voted in as a full member this month, was a young man full of life, one who enjoyed hunting and had a good group of friends.
“He was a very social person. He was always laughing at something and always had some joke to tell. He was a very good guy with so much to offer. I know it was that desire to help people that led him to join our fire service,” said Gajdos. “He may not have been the best of any particular skill, but he poured his heart and soul into everything he did. We miss him very much, and we will remember him well.
“While we have lost Justin, his passion for helping others has not been lost with him. Justin was an organ donor; even in the shadow of death he will continue to live on by serving others.”
Townsend, whose father, Bryan, is also a member of the Dagsboro department, was a third-generation firefighter.
“Many local departments are family-based, not just in name but in brotherhood and sisterhood. Our department is no different. Justin’s father is a member of this department,” said Gajdos. “We continue to support him and their family and grieve with them in their time of need.”
Townsend’s 18-year-old brother, Steven, died in January, making this the second tragedy befalling the family in less than a year.
Gajdos said the State of Delaware was offering counseling services for members of the department, as well as Townsend’s family, in the wake of the accident. He added that Sussex Tech has also offered to counsel any students grieving through the difficult loss of their classmate.
Warren Jones, the executive manager of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighter’s Association, said that Townsend’s death was the first time a firefighter had died in the line of duty in the state of Delaware since 2009.
“It was a tragic loss that we’re all feeling,” said Jones. “Anytime you lose a firefighter it’s always a tragic and severe loss to us, especially someone of Justin’s age. He was just beginning to become a major part of the Dagsboro fire department. He was a great young man.”
“I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Dagsboro firefighter Justin Townsend yesterday as he was working to protect the safety of Delawareans,” added Congressman John Carney (D-Del.) in a written statement.
“The death of a first-responder, especially one so young, shakes the entire community. It’s a heartbreaking reminder of the sacrifices made by brave men and women every day who selflessly protect our lives while risking their own. My thoughts and prayers are with Justin’s family, friends and his fellow firefighters as they deal with this tragic loss.”
Townsend is the first line-of-duty fatality the fire company has experienced in its entire 69 years of service. Gajdos said the DVFC will be out of service, with its fire district being covered by other area fire companies, until it is ready to serve the community again.
“We would like to thank all of our neighboring agencies across Sussex County and across the Delmarva region. We appreciate this extended family and their efforts to help us get back on our feet,” he said. “I want to ensure the public that, even in spite of this tragedy, the community is being protected by dedicated men and women from neighboring fire districts… If someone calls 911, they will get a response, and the same services will be provided that are offered by the Dagsboro fire department.”
A visitation was scheduled for Friday, Oct. 5, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Dagsboro fire hall. Townsend’s funeral services were to be held on Saturday, Oct. 6, at 1 p.m. at Indian River High School, where friends may call after 11 a.m.
A full firefighter’s funeral will commence immediately following the viewing on Saturday. The procession will go from Indian River High School to Redman’s Cemetery on Iron Branch Road in Dagsboro. Refreshments will be served at the Dagsboro fire hall.
In lieu of flowers, the Townsend family requested monetary donations to be made to the fire company in Justin’s name.
The Dagsboro Volunteer Fire Department located at 31818 Waples Street in Dagsboro. For more information, visit the fire company’s Web site at http://dagsborovfd.com.