Fire recruits honor fallen comrade

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NORTH BEND - The tradition of hiking to Mailbox Peak for Washington State Fire Training Academy recruits took on added meaning last month when the trek not only served as a rite of passage, but as a memorial for a fallen comrade.

For more than 15 years, graduating classes of the academy have made the 4,082-foot trek atop the peak - named so because of a mailbox that mysteriously appeared in the 1950s - to leave a memento of their accomplishment.

The current class decided to honor the memory of fallen Auburn firefighter Jon Cahill by leaving a firefighter's helmet shield and a recruit bull-dog award - given weekly at the academy to the recruit who shows the most tenacity and drive - inside the mailbox. On June 3, Captain Cahill, a 15-year veteran of the Auburn Fire Department, was killed when he and his Mount Rainier climbing partner fell about 200 feet on Liberty Ridge. Cahill left behind a wife and four children.

The two items will serve as a reminder to future groups ascending the peak of the passing of not only a friend, but also a dedicated professional and dedicated member of the fire service.

Matt Bowden, a recruit from the Orcas Island Fire Department, said the idea to honor Cahill was a class-wide decision. Cahill was scheduled to teach a course, as he'd done for years at the academy located off Exit 38, Bowden said, but that was not to be.

"Regardless of the timing, we feel a lot of his influence up here," said Bowden.

The Pacific Fire Department works closely with the Auburn department, explained recruit Dean McAuley, due to their close geographic location. In his work at Pacific, McAuley met Cahill on occasion and said that when the Auburn firefighter walked into a room, you knew he was there.

"He had a wonderful presence about him," said McAuley.

This isn't the first time the recruits have honored a fallen comrade. In late 2001 or early 2002, a class hauled a heavy brass fire hydrant up the 6-mile route, located on a peak next door to the academy, to honor those who had died in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In fact, the recruits aren't the only group using the mountain as a way to honor or remember loved ones.

Since the '50s, it has been a tradition for those reaching the summit to leave a letter in the mailbox that rests atop the peak. Although the original mailbox was stolen sometime in the late '90s, a replacement was installed with a 4-by-4-inch post wedged in between the rocks. The mailbox, although smaller, remains stuffed with letters, notes and items left by hikers, including Dr. Seuss books.

Mike Aboe, an academy staffer, said the tradition of academy members hiking up the mountain was started by an instructor in the late 1980s. According to Aboe, Gene Eggebratten, a retired Seattle Fire Department patrol chief, would spend his down time "blazing a trail" up to the peak.

According to McAuley, when the recent class reached the peak, placed the items and had a quick moment of silence for Cahill, there was an energy about the group.

"It just felt like it was meant to be," said McAuley.

The 24 recruits in the current class will graduate on July 16.

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