Farewell, ‘Fireman Jeff’

Cancer claims Marysville firefighter who visited schools

By Theresa Goffredo

Herald Writer

MARYSVILLE — All the local kids knew him as "Fireman Jeff."

For the past seven of his 17 years in the department, Marysville firefighter Lt. Jeff Thornton wore his Fireman Jeff name tag and visited schoolchildren to give lessons in stop, drop and roll and empower them with lifesaving skills.

"He spent a long time in public education and taught thousands of kids in the process of that," Marysville Fire Chief Greg Corn said. "His positive outlook, his great attitude and his experience, his job as an individual person and how we felt about him and the work he did for us, he can’t be replaced."

Thornton, 43, died Tuesday in Chula Vista, Calif. He had been diagnosed in December with a rare and aggressive form of cancer that had begun in his leg and spread quickly to his lungs. He had left Washington for Mexico, where he was seeking homeopathic treatment. While receiving that treatment, Thornton began to have trouble breathing and was rushed to the Chula Vista hospital where he died.

Lt. Jeff Thornton

His wife, Stephanie, was forced to leave her husband’s body behind and drive home instead of flying because of the nationwide halt of airline travel after Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Stephanie Thornton is a Marysville police dispatcher.

Before the cancer, Thornton was in top physical condition and played catcher on an amateur baseball team. He also routinely participated in an annual fund-raising event to fight leukemia in which firefighters don full gear and air masks and climb the 76 floors to the top of the Columbia Tower in Seattle.

"We’d typically send 15 guys to do that, and the younger guys would spend time training," Corn said. "And I always got a kick out of Jeff, who didn’t really train and always beat all the younger guys."

Thornton’s friends placed a baseball bat and catcher’s mitt at the main public safety center on Grove Street as part of a memorial to the beloved firefighter.

But more than his baseball prowess and athleticism, Thornton was known best for his Fireman Jeff role as a public school educator in fire safety.

Thornton and Marysville Middle School home economics teacher Kathy Shafer designed the safety program for the seventh-graders to learn how to perform lifesaving skills.

Thornton also taught sixth-graders home safety and would use EDITH as his aide. EDITH, which stands for emergency drills in the home, was a model of a house that Thornton brought to schools on a trailer. Crawling through EDITH, children would learn how to safely escape a house fire and how to use a fire extinguisher.

Thornton had a masterful touch with the children, and his easy demeanor would allow kids to feel safe, Shafer recalled.

Thornton, who had four children of his own, always noticed the children who felt awkward about performing in front of others. The firefighter would allow these children to wait till after class to show him the skills they had learned.

"He loved kids," Shafer said. "He loved teaching people."

Shafer said remembering Thornton’s contribution is so poignant this week after so many firefighters remain missing in the rescue attempt at the World Trade Center towers in New York.

"Fire departments really need a pat on the back now," Shafer said. "And we have to remember they don’t just fight fires. They are teaching kids to be responsible, and you can’t beat that."

You can call Herald Writer Theresa Goffredo at 425-339-3097

or send e-mail to goffredo@heraldnet.com.

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