More than a thousand people in Brownwood, Texas flocked to the funeral today of firefighter Shannon Stone, who tragically fell to his death attempting to catch a foul ball at a Texas Rangers baseball game.
Stone had taken his 6-year-old son, Cooper, to watch the game at Rangers ballpark in Arlington on Thursday when the accident occurred. Stone's wife Jenny said that prior to the game, Stone had stopped to buy new a glove, so that he could try to catch a ball to give to Cooper. When Cooper's favorite player Josh Hamilton threw a foul ball toward the stands, Stone reached too far over the balcony to catch it, and fell head first about 20 feet onto concrete. He died en route to John Peter Smith Hospital. With his last words, he expressed concern about his little boy.
Stone, 39, was laid to rest following a funeral ceremony at the First United Church in Brownwood, Texas – a church Stone's wife attended and Cooper went to vacation bible camp.
Stone's death has shaken the small hill town of Brownwood, with a population under 20,000. Flags everywhere flew at half mast and flower wreaths adorned the fire house where Stone worked. City manager Bobby Rountree said the close knit community had absorbed the shock and then immediately rallied around the Stones. He told ABC one local man came to his office on Friday to tell him he was going to sell barbecued brisket to raise money. By 6 p.m. he had sold out of brisket, and raised $9,000 for the family.
Jim Douglas from local ABC affiliate WFAA, who was outside the funeral, said at least a thousand people attended, filling the church's sanctuary and an overflow auditorium… some even standing, squeezed into corners and aisles. Attendees ranged from the Mayor of Brownwood to friends and family of the Stones and even Cooper Stone's soccer and baseball teams. Also in attendance were Rangers president Nolan Ryan and several other Rangers executives. More than three dozen Patriot Guards, whose professed mission is to attend funerals of fallen American heroes, stood guard outside the church, holding American flags.
Officiating the service along with Brownwood fire department chaplain, Pastor David Barnum, was Pastor Rev. Donald Scroggs – who says the Stones were "like family," and that Shannon was honored with "humor and good feeling."
"It was very personal about Shannon," Rountree said of the funeral. "Stories were told by a couple of his fellow firefighters and there was a little levity. They talked about the type of guy he was…how compassionate he was in general and passionate about firefighting. It was his calling. It was a celebration, as much as it can be – especially with a 6-year-old boy."
A lone bagpipe played as Stone's 10 pallbearers, fellow firefighters from his shift at Brownwood, loaded a plain wooden casket containing their fallen colleague onto a ladder truck, stopping to place Stone's helmet and bunker coat on top. Stone's wife and son followed the ladder truck hand in hand, as it led a procession that included 60 emergency vehicles toward the cemetery. Lining the streets around them, hundreds of people who'd come out of offices and apartments to show support… some holding flags, some holding homemade signs, all waiting patiently in nearly 100 degree temperatures to pay their respects.
Stone's death has hit his fire station particularly hard. Each staff member from the Brownwood fire department, where Stone had worked since 1993, attended the funeral; while neighboring Abilene fire station covered their area.
"Like they said at the funeral, he didn't want to operate the pumper," said Rountree. "He wanted to be the first guy into the fire. He was considered a 'fireman's fireman.'" The homepage of Brownwood fire department's web site displayed a picture of Stone smiling in uniform with the simple messag: "You will be missed; and always loved."
Pedro Aravelo from the Arlington Fire Department, the station that initially responded when Stone fell, said what happened has resonated with the larger firefighting community. "With any loss of a firefighter, everyone has to remember we're all like a big family," he said, "and whether we work in the same department or not, when someone is lost it hurts us all." Aravelo said fire departments not just from the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area, but from across Texas and beyond, were represented at the funeral. A battalion chief's vehicle had been dispatched along with members of the fire service honor guard to assist with the service.
The accident has also hit the Rangers team at its heart. President Nolan Ryan described it in a press conference Friday as, "one of the saddest things I've ever seen at a ballpark" and said player Josh Hamilton in particular was "very distraught." Rangers press director John Blake said the situation had been "devastatin" to the entire team, who wore black ribbons on their uniforms at a game on the weekend against the Oakland A's, observed a minute of silence and flew all flags at half staff in honor of Stone.
Blake asserts safety is a top priority for the Rangers, and said although the railings over which Stone fell exceed code, plans were nevertheless in motion to meet with contractors, architects and city officials to do a thorough examination of the ballpark. Asked if he had a message for fans attempting, as Stone did, to catch foul balls, Blake said: "Baseball is a very fan friendly sport and the idea of coming to catch a ball is all part of it… and always will be." But, he said, they are urging players to be "prudent."
The Rangers have launched a memorial fund for Stone's family; and urged anyone wishing to donate funds to do so at the Rangers Foundation Kiosk at Arlington, online at texasrangers.com/fund, or at any DFW Metroplex PlainsCapital Bank location. The Rangers themselves will make an unspecified flat contribution to the fund, and additionally will match player and employee offerings up to $250 per donation. The Oakland A's also contributed $5,000. The City of Brownwood, along with the fire department, has also set up a fund, details of which can be found on the fire department homepage.
A funeral program described Stone's many accomplishments… in addition to an exemplary firefighting record, Stone worked as a peace officer, an EMT and as a rescue technician at the Texas Motor Speedway. He also took part in disaster relief after hurricanes Ike and Katrina.
Rountree said Stone even helped in the 9/11 cleanup effort in New York City. But his biggest source of pride was his son, who went with him everywhere. He described Stone as an "excellent person but probably a better dad."
Perhaps one of Stone's biggest accomplishments was one he achieved posthumously…. written on the funeral program, under a photo of Stone grinning in front of a fire truck, it read simply; "Shannon was an organ donor, who benefitted over 40 lives, and gave the gift of sight."