Hundreds of first responders and community members gathered in Longview, Washington, Tuesday to remember Battalion Chief Mickel Zainfeld, a 25-year Cowlitz County firefighting veteran.
Zainfeld took his own life Sept. 19, after battling work-related post-traumatic stress. He was diagnosed in March and had been put on medical leave.
Seventy fire and emergency responder vehicles led his funeral procession from the Cowlitz 2 Fire and Rescue station in Kelso to a nearby church in Longview. Along the way, dozens of people gathered to pay their respects and a group of bagpipers played "Amazing Grace."
In front of the hundreds gathered at the service, Zainfeld was remembered by Cowlitz 2 Fire Chief Dave LaFave as a guy with “an infectious smile and a happy demeanor.”
“Mike was an advocate for his crew,” he said. LaFave had known Zainfeld since he'd been a kid visiting his father, a volunteer firefighter, at the firehouse. “He loved the men and women he worked with.”
LaFave described Zainfeld as a dedicated leader who quickly rose up the ranks. He was credited with creating the station’s oath, one that every man and woman takes when becoming a firefighter.
“He and I worked together and made an oath,” LaFave said. “It’s a legacy for Mike.”
Born in Landstuhl, Germany, Zainfeld moved with his family to Kelso when he was 18 months old. He grew up dreaming of becoming a firefighter and was among the first class of cadets in Kelso High School’s fire science program. During his two decades of fire service, Zainfeld was deployed to several locations across the country to assist with natural disasters, including the 2014 deadly Oso, Washington, landslide.
Zainfeld is survived by his wife Kelly and their two sons, among other family members, many of whom attended Tuesday’s service.
“Mike was a rock,” said Mario Gambaro, a Cowlitz County chaplain. “He was the family’s first responder, if you will.”
In a statement released this week, the Zainfeld family said Mickel was “loved by many and respected by all.”
“This tragedy does not define Mickel’s commitment to his family, peers and community,” the statement read. “Instead, we ask for this tragedy to redefine how mental health in first responders is looked at.”
LaFave didn’t shy away from addressing Zainfeld’s suicide and vowed the department is taking mental health among its firefighters seriously.
“When I saw Kelly and the boys shortly after this happened, the first words that Kelly said to me were 'don't let this happen again,’” LaFave said during the service. “This is an issue we need to discuss, and we need to do it transparently. And we need to do it with as much effort as we do these ceremonies so that we don’t do them again.”
LaFave ended his comments with a special message to his former battalion chief: “Mike, I love you, I miss you, and I’m proud of you.”
The service closed with the sounding of the bells, a firefighting tradition that signals the start of a day and the extinguishing of a fire.
“His task complete, his duties well done. To our brother, his last alarm is going home,” said Chaplain Pat Ellis of Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority.
The crowd saluted as a single bell rang five times.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call for help now. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a free service answered by trained staff 24 hours per day, every day. The number is 1-800-273-8255. Or text 273TALK to 839863.