PORTLAND – It was 19 years ago that Aaron Osgood responded to a call with his Ladder 1 partner, Frank Cowan. A fire that started in a restaurant had spread throughout a three-story building on Congress Street.

“We had just finished venting a roof,” Osgood recalled, “and we had gone down into the second floor to deal with some debris. All of a sudden, I hear him yell ‘Ozzie,’ and when I turned around, he was slumped down in the corner.”

Cowan, 44, had lost consciousness. He didn’t have a pulse.

“I knew there was a medic just outside, so I grabbed him and hauled him down over the stairs screaming for help,” Osgood said. “Then, I went back to work.”

The physical stress of the call had caused a heart attack. Although Cowan recovered initially, the cardiac event weakened him substantially. When another attack gripped him two months later, Cowan didn’t have enough muscle in his heart to fight it, Osgood said. He died Sept. 14, 1993.

That was the last time a Portland firefighter died in the line of duty. Cowan’s name is now immortalized, along with 19 others dating back to 1903, on a stone memorial that was unveiled Saturday morning at Central Fire Station on Congress Street.

Portland Deputy Fire Chief David Jackson said the memorial, which includes benches and a brick pathway leading from the sidewalk, has been nearly 15 years in the making.

“We promised we would never forget,” he said Saturday. “And here we are.”

One by one, each of the 20 names was read by a current Portland firefighter. The first was Thomas W. Burnham, who died April 28, 1903. The last was Cowan.

It was Osgood, now a lieutenant, who told the dozens of guests, including firefighters past and present, about the circumstances of his former partner’s death. He reminded them that Cowan was a U.S. Navy veteran and firefighter in Portland for many years before his death. He also was a local driving instructor who helped countless area teens get their licenses, Osgood said.

Cowan’s widow, Sandra Jackson, sat in the front row.

Once all the names of the fallen were read and wreaths were lain at the memorial’s base, Jackson was approached by television reporters who wanted to ask her what she was feeling. As she waited to be interviewed, an older man came up and introduced himself. A look of surprise overtook her face; she recognized him. “Oh, it’s been so long,” she said. And they hugged. When she turned back to the waiting TV cameras and microphones, Jackson wiped tears from her eyes.

“This really brings back the memories,” she said.

Jackson has remarried since her husband died. She said she’s moved on but still thinks of him often.

“It’s an honor and privilege for him to be remembered,” she said. “He was a character. You had to know him.”

Cowan loved being a firefighter, his widow said.

“To die in the line of duty … I don’t know that he would have wanted it any other way,” Jackson said.

If there was a takeaway from Saturday’s solemn event it was this: The number of fallen firefighters in Portland is a small group and only four have joined the list in more than 50 years. None has died in the 19 years since Cowan.

“I think that’s wonderful; I hope that continues,” Jackson said. Losing a loved one that way, she said, “is a hard road to go.”

Osgood, too, said he hopes he never has to attend the funeral of a colleague who died in the line of duty. He said better education and equipment have made his job easier. Still, it’s a risk every time he or any other firefighter gets a call.

Osgood shared a few words with Jackson after the ceremony on Saturday but didn’t linger long. It wasn’t the emotion of the event that spurred him to leave so quickly. He needed to get back to work.

“I’m on duty,” he said.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell


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