James Spillane - Richfield FDJames Spillane, Richfield Firefighter

James Spillane, Firefighter - June 16, 1955

"This story appears courtesy of Sun Newspapers. It was originally published in the Oct. 20, 2011, edition of the Richfield Sun-Current."

Richfield firefighter died on duty and has not been honored

BY Billie Jo Rassat - sun newspapers

The only firefighter that lost his life in the line of duty on behalf of the city of Richfield is not recognized for his sacrifice on the Minnesota State Firefighter Memorial.

On June 16, 1955, volunteer firefighter for the city of Richfield James Spillane, 32, died fighting a fire at 6437 5th Ave. The fire was one of two that night set by an arsonist, according to news articles from the time.

Spillane was taken from his wife, Florence, and two children, 2-year-old Mary O'Rourke and 4-year-old Michael Spillane.

During the fire, Spillane collapsed after suffering from smoke inhalation in the low attic area of the home and was transported to St. Mary's hospital, but died during transport in the ambulance.

Now for Spillane's selfless efforts, Richfield Fire Chief Wayne Kewitsch is leading a mission to gain Spillane's acknowledgment on the Minnesota State Firefighter Memorial.

"We want to make sure he and his family are recognized for the sacrifices he made on behalf of the citizens of Richfield," Kewitsch said.

Kewitsch was approached by the Minnesota Fire Service Foundation to help raise donations to collect $600,000 in donations by Dec. 31 to construct a new memorial on State Capitol grounds for a larger and more accessible statue than the one that sits near the baggage claim area at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. After finding out the only firefighter to lose his life in Richfield's history was not on the monument, Kewitsch began his quest.

Kewitsch efforts included researching Spillane's case, going straight to the Richfield Historical Society and rummaging around through old microfilmed news articles to develop evidence showing Spillane's heroics.

He contacted the family to see about dedicating the new training room in the Richfield Municipal Center, that the department had already named after Spillane.

Through the social media site, Facebook, O'Rourke reached out to the Minnesota Fire Service Foundation, stating, "My Dad, James Spillane, was a Richfield volunteer fireman who lost his life on June 16, 1955, while in the line of duty. He is the only firefighter from Richfield who has ever died while fighting a fire. I hope that his name will be included on the memorial that is being planned for the state Capitol. I just found out he's not listed at all on the current one. He deserves to be honored."

The foundation responded to her post with, "My deepest sympathies to you and your family for your loss. I know that Richfield Fire Chief Wayne Kewitsch is working hard to get your father the recognition he deserves. I am certain James will be included."

The statue honors the 193 Minnesota firefighters who have given their lives since 1881. It was moved to the baggage claim area about 20 years ago, from a more public and accessible portion of the airport, said foundation president and Eden Prairie Fire Chief George Esbensen.

Now, the foundation would like to "claim a more sacred ground" for a memorial, Esbensen said, which would be more accessible to the public, on a southern portion of the State Capitol property in St. Paul.

To donate or learn more, visit mnfireservicefoundation.org. Contributions to the Minnesota State Firefighter Memorial fundraiser can also be sent to: Minnesota Fire Service Foundation c/o Flagship Bank, 7525 Office Ridge Road, Eden Prairie, MN 55344.