Charles Barrett was 41 when he was killed by a high-voltage shock while responding to an alarm at the Congress Square Hotel on Oct. 2, 1908. He had recently submitted his resignation so he could care for his invalid wife and their six children, all younger than 11.

Deputy Chief William Steele, 46, and Lt. Ralph Eldridge, 35, died after inhaling nitric acid fumes while responding to a spill in a drugstore basement on Jan. 1, 1913.

Capt. James Kent, 60, was knocked from a ladder and buried under a pile of bricks when the roof collapsed as he fought a fire at Deering High School on May 21, 1921.

Twenty men died fighting fires in Portland in the 20th century, or from health complications directly related to their efforts. An unknown number died before then, when equipment was more rudimentary and fires were more common.

As the nation prepares to honor the sacrifice of first responders 10 years ago in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Portland is laying the groundwork for its own memorial to fallen firefighters. The fire service and local businesses are teaming to erect a Fallen Fire Fighters Memorial alongside Central Station on Congress Street.

“These guys sacrificed their lives doing what we do every day,” said Larry Libby, who retired as a deputy chief in 2008 after a 34-year career, and who has been working for more than a decade to make the memorial a reality.

“I just wanted to make sure these guys knew we haven’t forgotten them,” he said, “and the citizens of the city should remember them.”

Libby started working on the idea in the 1990s but funding was hard to come by. Recently, he approached Jon Jennings, president and general manager of the Maine Red Claws NBA Development League basketball team.

“When I was a little kid, I grew up near a fire station. I always wanted to be a firefighter,” Jennings said. “When (Libby) came to me, I was a little surprised we didn’t have a memorial already in the city for fallen firefighters.

“Fortunately, the business community really stepped up in a wonderful way to pay for the memorial and make this a reality,” Jennings said.

Among the businesses that are supporting the effort, besides the Red Claws, are Unum, Mercy Hospital, Quirk Chevrolet, MaineToday Media, MEMIC, Maine Medical Center and Wright Express, he said.

“I think all of us feel a sense of gratitude … and (are pleased) to be able to make a modest contribution to a memorial that will stand for many generations in tribute to the men who paid the ultimate sacrifice so all of us would be safe,” Jennings said.

The Portland Fire Department will host a groundbreaking ceremony at 10 a.m. Sept. 9. Once the stone is in place, probably in the spring, the department will hold a dedication.

The plan calls for a black granite obelisk, 8 feet tall by 3 feet wide, with the name of each fallen firefighter inscribed on its face. Above the names will be the inscription of a poem written by New York City’s fire chief at the beginning of the 20th century, discussing the noble impulse to save lives and how such thoughts prompt daring deeds and even the supreme sacrifice.

The memorial will be at the end of a brick plaza on the green to the southwest of Central Fire Station, surrounded by raised flower beds. It will be visible to passers-by, but partially secluded by shrubs to allow quiet contemplation.

Camaraderie in the fire service is legendary, so the fallen firefighters and their relatives are like extended family for current members.

“It’s not just about remembering the names that are here, it’s that these people left families behind too,” said Lt. John Brooks, president of the firefighters union. “It’s important for the families to not be forgotten.”

Firefighters go to work knowing that their job is dangerous.

Libby, who joined in 1974 because it was noble work with benefits, soon realized the tremendous satisfaction and anxiety that came with the job.

“Every day you do something to help somebody,” Libby said. “You get yourself into situations that are pretty scary. … We don’t even think about being in danger until it’s all over and say ‘Wow, that could have been bad.’“

Portland’s department joins with the South Portland Fire Department each October for a memorial service to fallen firefighters at Forest City Cemetery. The tradition dates back to 1892, said Michael Daicy, a retired firefighter who serves as the Portland department’s historian.

No Portland firefighters have died since 1993, when Frank Cowan suffered a fatal heart attack related to fighting a fire at a restaurant at 629 Congress St. The last decade was the first since 1900 when no Portland firefighter was killed in the line of duty, Daicy said.

He said the location of the planned memorial is appropriate. There have been four firehouses in that city block in the past 200 years, including one that burned in the Great Fire of 1866, which destroyed most of the buildings in Portland.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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