The more than 100 friends, family members and fellow firefighters who gathered at Mercy Hospital this week after Jarrett Eleam was stricken spoke volumes about how people felt about him.
But seeing his devastated colleagues in the Big Tree Volunteer Fire Company recall him Thursday said it even better.
Eleam, who joined the Hamburg fire company about 18 months ago, died Wednesday evening in the hospital after becoming ill during a training exercise Monday night.
"To see Jarrett and know Jarrett, it only took you about five minutes to become his best friend," said Big Tree President Dan Bozek.
"As soon as you meet him, you love him," added Fire Chief Ed Hughes.
Eleam is the first member in the 74-year history of Big Tree to die in the line of duty. A cause of death has not been released, and Hughes said the state Labor Department is looking into the death.
Tentative funeral arrangements have been made and include a wake Sunday evening and funeral Monday in the Pittsburgh area, firefighters said. The fire company is chartering a bus to take members to the funeral and is planning a memorial service in Hamburg at a future date.
The strapping 26-year-old who liked to cook went to Duquesne University, where he met his girlfriend, who grew up in Erie County, firefighters said. He moved to Hamburg and had worked at Target before getting laid off.
He was one of the top 10 responders to calls and was installed Saturday as a lieutenant in charge of fire prevention.
"He was going to be a future star in our fire company," Hughes said.
Eleam and other firefighters were taking part in a training exercise with self-contained breathing apparatus, where they maneuvered around a maze set up in a controlled environment in the banquet hall Monday night.
Eleam had finished and was relaxing, waiting for others to finish, when he became ill. Firefighters said he remained conscious, and a Big Tree ambulance took him to Mercy Hospital.
His condition deteriorated at the hospital Tuesday, and his family arrived from the Pittsburgh area shortly after midnight Wednesday morning, Hughes said.
A total of 11 family members rushed to the bedside of Eleam, who was the second-youngest of 12 children. They included his parents, a brother, two sisters, aunts and uncles.
It was at Mercy Hospital where his Pittsburgh family met his Big Tree family. Nearly 100 firefighters gathered at the hospital as his condition worsened, and they went into his room in pairs for final goodbyes. Firefighters said they are grateful to the hospitality shown by the hospital, which gave them a place to gather and took care of their needs and those of the family.
About the same number attended a stress debriefing Tuesday in the same room where Eleam became ill. There were a lot of tears and a lot of laughs in fond remembrance of Eleam, firefighters said.
"He touched everybody's lives in this room," Hughes said.
The message on the sign outside the fire hall on South Park Avenue reads: "Always Ride with Us FF Jarrett Eleam."
Firefighters said Eleam wanted his organs to be donated, which is in keeping with his personality.
"He told us his goal in life was to save lives. He always wanted to go into a field where he could save lives," said Ron Klimowicz, a past fire chief.