A 36-year-old firefighter died early Thursday during what was called a “difficult and prolonged extrication” at a truck crash site on Aviation Avenue at Cecil Airport, according to the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department.
Engineer Michael L. Freeland had been a firefighter for seven years and was assigned to Station 73, just under a mile from Thursday morning’s crash scene.
The crash occurred just after midnight when a woman driving a U-Haul truck hit a power pole. The resulting damage made it very difficult to get the woman out, so Freeland had to climb into the back. It was a “very difficult extraction, the way she was pinned in there,” Chief Keith Powers said.
“He collapsed on scene and despite the best efforts of the men and women he works with at this fire station and the folks at UF Health, he succumbed,” Powers said. “… The U-Haul had hit a light pole and there was a wire on the ground, but we are unsure right now of the cause of death and we will not speculate.”
Calling him a “very good firefighter, very energetic,” Powers gave a briefing outside the station on the city’s Westside. Saying he received the call that every fire chief dreads being notified of, Powers said Freeland “had a servant’s heart” and loved to help the community.
“He was a proud firefighter and loved saving lives,” a family member wrote on Facebook. “Thank you to his JFRD family that were on the scene and those who helped my family at the hospital this morning. He is our hero.”
The crash left the truck’s front end crushed, so firefighters had to cut a large hole in its cargo box behind the cab to try to get to the driver, fire officials said. The JEA confirmed that a crew was sent out to replace the power pole, which was downed in the crash.
Powers said Freeland was in the back of the U-Haul to find another way to get the driver out after firefighters had been working for 30 minutes to extricate her.
“He stepped out of the back and collapsed, and at this point we are still waiting on the medical examiner to give a cause of death,” the chief said.
Fellow firefighters were just feet from him when he collapsed and immediately “put their heart and soul” into helping him, Powers said. He was declared dead at UF Health Jacksonville after transport there.
Powers said the entire department is distraught.
Randy Wyse, president of the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters union, posted an End of Service image for Freeland on Facebook: a red and black sash slung over a fire engineer’s badge.
This was not the first fire department line-of-duty death this year, following on-duty COVID-19 illnesses that also resulted in the deaths of police in the region in the past year and a half.
Fire Capt. Thomas Barber, 51, and a 21-year veteran, died June 14. Barber’s cause of death was not released. The COVID-19 virus was the cause of death for 17-year veteran Lt. Mario Moya, 51, who died Aug. 17. He was the first in the agency to succumb to the COVID-19 virus in the line of duty, officials said.
Other first responders lost during the pandemic included Jacksonville Beach police Sgt. Daniel Eugene Watts, 49, as well as retired Neptune Beach Officer Eddie Bounds and Clay County Deputy Clint Seagle in August. Clay County’s Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Eric Twisdale, 49, died Sept. 16. St. Johns County Deputy Jody Hull Jr., 49, died on Aug. 21.
Other local law enforcement deaths in the past year include Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Lt. Chris Cunningham, 48; Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office auxiliary Sgt. Louis “Lou” Livatino, 71; and Nassau County Deputy Bailiff Jack Gwynes, 61.
The Florida Times-Union