Fr. Korpi offers comfort to Fairfax firefighters

First slide
First slide
First slide
Previous Next

Fighting fires is dangerous work. In 2014, according to the National Fire Protection Association, 64 firefighters in the United States were killed in the line of duty. This was down from 97 deaths in 2013.

The danger is not just physical. Dealing with death and injury takes an emotional toll too - albeit sometimes harder to identify.

To help first responders deal with stress, Fairfax County has a team of seven volunteer chaplains to minister to nearly 1,700 firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

The chaplains are not a replacement for a person's minister or priest; they are there to listen, and they listen to believers and non-believers.

Father Bill Korpi, parochial vicar of Church of the Nativity in Burke, is the Catholic chaplain who serves firefighters in Battalion 5 that includes the Franconia, Springfield, Edsall Road, West Springfield and Kingstowne fire stations. The Burke fire station is near Nativity, so he goes there to sometimes just to sit and have coffee - and to listen and, if need be, to talk.

Father Korpi said he became interested in ministering to firefighters when he was a seminarian at Blessed John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Mass.

As a seminarian, he was assigned to Sacred Heart Church in Baradford, Mass., whose pastor, Father Bob Conole, was a firefighter before he was ordained. He remained the chaplain after his ordination, and it was he who inspired Father Korpi to enter the ministry.

When Father Conole was on chaplain duty, he'd ask Father Korpi to come along on calls. If there was a fire late at night, the pastor would bang on his door.

"Hey Korpi, get up," he would yell.

And he went with his pastor on calls. He said he got the "bug."

A ministry of presence

The chaplaincy serves firefighters, emergency personnel and their families. They will help console members of the general public affected by a tragedy, but the chaplains' first duty is to first-responders. They help them get through a crisis situation.

"It's a ministry of presence," said Father Korpi.

Chaplains are on call for one week, roughly seven times a year. Some weeks are busier than others. When he's on duty, Father Korpi sometimes gest a text or a phone call and goes to a scene. More often, he shows up for coffee at the firehouse after a traumatizing event. He sits near the coffee pot - coffee's always brewing in a firehouse - and starts a conversation with someone he knows who just went through a difficult call.

In addition to the firehouse visits, he often goes to the scene of a fire or other serious incidents.

On the scene

One evening the Fairfax County police called Father Korpi to a scene in Vienna. They needed a Catholic chaplain.

There was a woman in the backyard lying on her back on the grass, like she was stargazing. There was a lunar eclipse that evening. He remembers her husband telling the police,

"I won't talk to anyone until I see a Catholic priest next to my wife."

The woman was dead.

Father Korpi knelt next to her and recited the prayers for the deceased.

Later the man was calmly talking to police. Father Korpi never found out the reason for the death, and that's not unusual.

During the derecho storm in 2012 that knocked power out to more than a million people in the Washington metropolitan area and flooded basements and downed trees, Father Korpi was riding with the volunteer chief from the Burke fire station. He called Father Korpi when he heard about the rising water.

The water rose on Telegraph Road in Alexandria stranding about 82 cars for hours on a bridge near Davidson Air Field at Fort Belvoir. Father Korpi was stuck there too. He put on his firefighter gear and prepared to help the stranded.

He saw a family he recognized, but because of his fire helmet, the family did not immediately recognize him.

"I'm a chaplain," he said.

He took his helmet off and showed the family who he was.

"Thank God you're here," one of the occupants said.

"You're going to have a story to tell," he told the children.

In the firehouse

The chaplains often develop close friendships with each other. Father Korpi and Greek Orthodox Deacon Harry Chelpon call each other "battle buddies."

They cover each other when one of them can't make a duty assignment, or if one needs help.

There have been other serious incidents that made the news where Father Korpi and his "battle buddy "and other chaplains have been involved. One was the death of a Brazilian police officer at the 2015 World Police and Fire Games in Fairfax. The man who died was Catholic, and Father Korpi organized the memorial service.

Firefighters are notoriously tight-lipped about sharing their feelings. After an incident a chaplain will come to the firehouse to help firefighters over a rough time. But you can't just ask them how they're doing, said Father Korpi.

"The answer will always be, 'I'm fine,'" he said.

"We are hesitant to share," said firefighter/paramedic Tory Albertson. "I'm a man of faith," he said. "(This ministry) is a huge boon to me." Although Albertson is not Catholic, he appreciates the chaplain's work.

The firehouse is like a family, according to Burke fire station Captain Tim Barb. He's been to the chaplains' churches and worshiped with them. If he needs someone there for spiritual help, he calls them.

"The Holy Spirit is here," said Deacon Chelpon.

Firefighters sometimes will say that Jesus is a first-responder. He may be, and the men and women firefighters are His instruments.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015