Fort Wayne firefighter helps family in Germany

This is the card Fort Wayne firefighter Bryan Peterson sent to Germany. He translated his message into German. (WANE Photo)
This is the card Fort Wayne firefighter Bryan Peterson sent to Germany. He translated his message into German. (WANE Photo)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — The compassion of one Fort Wayne firefighter is helping the family of a German firefighter who was killed in a fire two years ago.

When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, Bryan Peterson sends that department a sympathy card on behalf of the shifts at Station 6, off Coliseum Boulevard, and the Fort Wayne Fire Department. He and the other firefighters at his engine house buy all the cards and stamps to send the notes around the world. Last year, Peterson mailed around 140 cards.

“This is kind of a way we as a station and we as a department can at least help with some of the anguish they’re feeling. That we’re thinking of them and trying to understand the death of their loved one as much as they are,” Peterson said.

The cards are already printed with a message and pictures of the station, but he always adds a handwritten note.

“So they know someone took the time to read about what happened and so that they know not only do we want their department to know we’re thinking of them, but we want them to convey that to the family as well,” he said.

Sometimes Peterson gets a note or letter back from the department. But, one letter stood out. It came from Cindy Fankhanel in Germany and it included pictures of her husband and their two young boys.

“When you put pictures with the words, it hits you,” Peterson said. “These kids are without a father for the rest of their lives and at a time in their lives now when that is the most important person they need.”

Dirk Fankhanel died fighting a furniture warehouse fire in Chemnitz, Germany on May 20, 2012. He was inside the building when the roof collapsed.

In Cindy’s letter, she mentioned how it had always been her husband’s dream to come to the United States to see the American fire service. That got Peterson thinking. What if he could help Dirk’s family live out his dream?

“We take care of our own. Even though he wasn’t an American firefighter, he was in our family. Taking care of his wife and the boys even for just two weeks and getting them out of the environment and letting them have some good memories is important,” he said.

Peterson got to work fundraising through social media. On Tuesday, he was able to tell Cindy the plane tickets were good to go.

Cindy and her sons, John, age 12, and Julian, age 6, are beyond excited. Peterson already sent the boys a little gift from Fort Wayne too.

“To live Dirk’s dream is a chance for us to support other firefighters and to know what other firefighters do. I’m looking forward to meeting so many people who supported us,” Cindy said over the phone. “I can’t believe that people who don’t know me support me so much. It’s wonderful, a wonderful feeling.”

Cindy was married to Dirk for ten years.

“There are days when I think I’m okay and so many days I think, ‘Oh no. It’s not a life I want to live.’ It’s very hard to be a mother alone with two sons. It makes me sad my husband can’t see how the boys grow up,” she said.

Part of the family’s trip to Fort Wayne will include going to the golf outing for the National Fallen Firefighters Association.

“We are going to get her involved with other widows. It’s something she doesn’t have there. She doesn’t have that support,” Peterson said.

While there are similarities, firefighting is different in Germany than in the United States.

“Dirk wanted to drive a fire car in the USA. He wanted to see firefighters work and how they do this. It was a big dreams of his,” Cindy said. “He [chose to be a firefighter] because he wants to help people. It was not only a job, it was more. It was his life.”

Peterson has sent countless condolences cards and attended a lot of funerals for fallen public safety professionals. His mission to help the Fankhanel family also is personal for him.

“I’ve worked in emergency services since I was in high school. I’ve seen a lot of pretty horrific things. This is a time I can take something horrific and turn it into something really nice. The city deserves that credit,” he said.

While the Fort Wayne Fire Department endorses Peterson’s efforts, the trip is being funded entirely by outside donations. People can help at any Fire Police City County Federal Credit Union under the Dirk’s Dream account. Online donations can be made here.

The Fankhanel family will be in the United States July 30 – August 13. Peterson is working on arranging a few days in Washington D.C. as part of the trip.

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