North Charleston firefighter takes his last ride
For as long as he could remember, Jonathan Kennedy had wanted to be a firefighter.
He grew up in the North Charleston Fire Department, bouncing from one station to the next - and enjoying every minute of it.
He was born to the life. His father, Gerald, was a captain for the city department, and his grandfather, Jesse Kennedy, had been chief of the public service district's fire department in the 1970s.
Jonathan loved the trucks, the gear, the adventure of the job. But mostly he loved the people.
And they loved him back.
He was always there, around the station, wherever the action was - fire prevention week, the Christmas parade, all those family get-togethers. Because the fire department was his family.
Jonathan knew everyone by name, knew every truck at every fire hall down to the last detail.
Once, when the department was moving equipment around, having some of the trucks reassigned and others serviced, they lost track of one. Nobody could remember where they'd left it.
Finally, they called Jonathan. He told them exactly where it was.
Jonathan Kennedy would have been a perfect firefighter, but he couldn't join the department.
He was born with Crouzon syndrome, a genetic disease that affects one in 16 million people. His skull bones were fused prematurely, and he had to have two surgeries when he was still a baby.
There wasn't much the doctors could do, however. They told his family that Jonathan wouldn't live past the age of 4.
But Jonathan Kennedy had other plans.
As a result of his substantial medical problems, Jonathan always had trouble breathing. But he never let it get him down. He fought it.
"He was a miracle," says his father.
Jonathan always had to be with one of his parents. He stayed with his mother, but often tagged along with Gerald to the station. To him, it was the greatest place he could be.
The firefighters loved to see him coming. He was always in a good mood, had a great sense of humor. He would inspect the trucks, and if he saw a smidgen of dirt he would razz the crew for being lazy. No matter what was going on, what might have folks down, Jonathan always cheered them up.
"He loved the fire department for the same reason we joined it," says Firefighter Ashley Coker. "He reminded us of that."
Ashley was one of Jonathan's favorites. He visited her as often as he could, sent her candy on Valentine's Day, called to tell her good night when she was working a shift.
Fire Chief Greg Bulanow says Jonathan became part of the family.
"He was considered one of us," Bulanow says.
And to Jonathan, there was no greater honor. Eventually, Jonathan became North Charleston's first - and to this day, only - honorary firefighter. It meant a lot to him, and made Gerald proud.
Last year, Jonathan turned 30 - 26 years longer than the doctors had given him. He still lived with his mother, Paula Smith Kennedy, but he had a job and he helped her out too. She took care of him, took him to all those doctor visits, sat with him in the hospital on long, scary nights.
Jonathan increasingly had trouble breathing. He'd had a tracheotomy when he was 4, but it wasn't enough. Ultimately, he was forced to carry an oxygen tank and sleep with a ventilator.
He didn't complain, and it did not keep him away from the fire department. Jonathan was always there.
On Feb. 12, 911 dispatched the North Charleston Fire Department to a private residence where there was a report of a man who wasn't breathing. When they got there, the crew learned it was Jonathan.
The firefighters put aside their emotions and went to work, performing CPR and trying everything they could to save his life. Jonathan would have been proud of the professionalism they displayed that night.
But ultimately, nothing they could do would save Jonathan. By the time they made it to the hospital, he was dead.
Jonathan had always told his father he wanted a firefighter's funeral.
He'd given it a lot of thought, and knew the day would come. He was quite specific with this request.
"He wanted to ride on a truck," Gerald says.
Not only that, Jonathan had the engine picked out. It was the one his father had once crewed, the one that Ashley now drove. And Jonathan had asked that she drive him to the cemetery.
When Gerald told her this, Ashley Coker broke down in tears.
"It was an honor," she says, "and I didn't want to let Jonathan down."
So last weekend, Jonathan got his last ride in a fire truck. Ashley led a procession of fire engines from around the Lowcountry, so many that it took 30 minutes for them all to pass through the cemetery gates. There were more than 1,000 firefighters at the funeral.
The North Charleston Fire Department has lost one of its own, and its members still are struggling to get through it. Bulanow dispatched a chaplain to counsel the team that responded to the Jonathan call. They are heartbroken, but then, everyone in the department is. You see, Jonathan was family.
Mayor Keith Summey and North Charleston City Council have decided that the gallery in the renovated Fire Museum will be named in Jonathan's honor, something that would please him to no end.
But more than anything, more than anything in the world, Jonathan would be proud to know that in the end he was buried like the hero he was.
Jonathan Kennedy was a firefighter.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com