Rankins was critically injured in fire that claimed New Haven firefighter Ricardo Torres, Jr.
Pam McLoughlin, New Haven Register, Conn.
May 23–BRIDGEPORT – Critically Injured New Haven firefighter Lt. Samod “Nuke” Rankins, who turned 29 Saturday, got a hero’s departure from Bridgeport Hospital’s burn unit Sunday, exiting to hundreds of cheering supporters – his Company 6 firefighters among them.
Among those who formed two lines for Rankins to walk the middle with honor to a black SUV home were the widow, mother and stepfather of young firefighter Ricardo Torres, Jr., who died in the fire May 12 on Valley Street that almost took his friend Rankins’ life, too.
It was a short, yet powerful walk for the tall, lean Rankins, using a walker; his parents, Novella Guiont and Sam Rankins by his side, as well as retired New Haven Fire Department Capt. Gary Tinney, a constant by Rankins’ side through it all.
There were no speeches, but the emotions of the crowd and Rankin said it all in minutes.
A short way into the walk, one of his entourage removed Rankins’ civilian cap and placed his white dress fire Lt. hat on his head – there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd.
Rankins was judicious with hugs and handshakes as he walked the path, but the hugs that happened were long and hard. Halfway to the SUV, the crowd broke into the “Happy Birthday” song as a bouquet of helium-filled balloons bobbed up and down.
They crowd cheered, whistled and some yelled, “Nuke,” – grateful he is alive to celebrate another birthday, even if it was in a hospital burn unit.
The birthday song was one of the many junctures where his helpers wiped tears from his eyes.
Almost at the SUV, but stalled in a hugging, greeting cluster, retired Bridgeport Fire Capt. Darrien Penix, like a brother to Rankins, yelled to him from the sidelines, “You all make sure you don’t get too tired,” as the weather was hot, humid and the exit was in the sun.
Rankins is an all-around, larger-than life figure in the New Haven community, as he’s not only a firefighter and activist for the rights of his brothers and sisters with the department, but also an extraordinary community volunteer who helps the homeless, children and marginalized in society.
New Haven resident Dawn Herring, who knows Rankins from their work feeding the homeless a few years ago and has casually kept in touch on Facebook, held a simple sign, “We (heart) you Nuke.”
“He’s polite, kind, giving, selfless,” Herring said. “I have sons his age and when I look at him, it’s like he’s what you envision your son to be.”
She heard the fire engines on Valley Street that night from her home nearby, and when she woke up and saw prayers for Rankins on Facebook, “My heart just sank,” she said.
Firefighter Nicholas Licata, the engine driver that night – who is in charge of getting all the water hooked up and working – reiterated what has often been said in the last two weeks, that, “We are all family.”
“It’s a very emotional time for all of us – with the loss of two firefighters in less than a week,” and Rankins being critically injured, Licata said.
He is referring to death of Torres – who leaves behind a son, 3, and a pregnant wife, as well as the unrelated, unexpected death May 6 of firefighter, William Jamar McMillian, 27, who leaves behind a daughter, 5.
Bridgeport Fire Department Deputy Chief Lanie Edwards doesn’t know Rankins but said he and others from the department were there to support him, “because the fire service is like one big family.”
“I’m hoping that he makes a full recovery,” and can serve the citizens of New Haven again.
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, masked, just kind of hung in with the crowd and told a reporter, said he was “touched” to see fallen firefighter Torres’ family there. They also attended a prayer vigil in New Haven last week for Rankins, Torres and McMillian.
“I’m excited to see Lt. Rankins’ recovery and the outpouring of love and support by so many firefighters and community member,” Elicker said.
Lorise Brown, who organized the prayer vigil held last Saturday outside Pitts Chapel for Rankins and the others, has no doubt why Rankins was able to walk out of the hospital so soon, although he has a long recovery ahead.
“We had a prayer vigil last Saturday and this Saturday Lt. Rankins is coming home by the grace of God,” Brown said. Pitts Chapel is the church of Rankins’ mom and much of her family.
Penix said Rankins has a long road ahead physically and psychologically, noting the latter could trickier as time goes on.
“We have to be with him through that,” Penix said.
He said Rankins is, “intelligent, caring, motivated,” and takes joy in seeing others succeed even in situations when he has been part of the pool that didn’t succeed.
“He has a heart and compassion for others,” Penix said. He said Rankins led study groups to help aspiring firefighters.
Rankins, a New Haven resident, has been a firefighter for little more than three years and rose through the ranks quickly.
Rankins and Torres Jr. were pulled from the fire after each made “Mayday” calls indicating distress. It was said by fire officials and family that Torres died doing what he loved.
In the days after Rankins awoke from an induced coma and managed to breathe on his own without a ventilator, doctors instructed him to speak as little as possible so his throat and lungs can heal.
Family and friends said from the start that Rankins is known for his determination and fighting spirit.
The morning of the fire, when his mom saw him at the hospital and Rankins was about to be intubated, he told her, “If I don’t make it, remember that I love you,” she said, through Tinney. He added, “Mom, you know you’re my number one girl.”
Tinney has said Rankins has “a phenomenal soul,” a ” heart of gold,” and is champion of civil rights for all – Black, white, Hispanic.
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