Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria stood before the fallen firefighters memorial outside Portland’s Central Station on Tuesday, struggling to keep his composure as he described the death of Capt. Michael Kucsma, who apparently drowned Monday afternoon while scuba diving near Tukey’s Bridge.

LaMoria said Kucsma’s fellow firefighters worked feverishly to resuscitate him on the dock of a Back Cove marina. LaMoria groped for words to describe the impact Kucsma’s death has had on the department, where coworkers live together and depend on one another in dangerous situations.

“He was an exceptional human being,” said LaMoria, calling Kucsma a friend and describing him as a highly trained, skilled firefighter who was always willing to share his knowledge.

Kucsma, 43, was a captain with the Portland Fire Department and a deputy chief with the department in his hometown of Gorham. He had recently applied for a deputy chief’s position in Portland.

Kucsma died while scuba diving with six friends he’d met at the dive shop where he received his certification. The group left from the shore near Tukey’s Bridge.

“When the group came up, the captain was missing and they made a decision to go look” for him, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said. It was unclear how long Kucsma had been under water.

Kucsma was unresponsive when his friends found him and pulled him onto the dock at Maine Yacht Center off Kensington Street at about 3:40 p.m. Firefighters responded and quickly realized the victim was one of their own.

LaMoria said the department’s protocol calls for working for 20 minutes to resuscitate someone who has no pulse. “We worked beyond that. …We did everything we could,” he said.

Counselors and peer support team members were called in to help responders cope with Kucsma’s death.

Lt. Ray Smith, a friend and colleague, choked up Tuesday as he described the accident, even though he was not among the responding crew.

“Not that we don’t try our hardest on every call, but I can only assume you’re going to try just a little bit harder and probably feel more defeat if you don’t succeed,” Smith said. “We go to a lot of calls. We see a lot of people die. We see a lot of sick people. When it becomes one of your own, it hits home a lot harder.”

Police are still investigating the incident. There are no signs of foul play and there was no immediate evidence that Kucsma’s equipment malfunctioned, Sauschuck said.

LaMoria said “something catastrophic happened,” but investigators are still don’t know what. The area near Tukey’s Bridge is not a well-known recreational diving location, in part because visibility in the water there is poor.

LaMoria said the state medical examiner will try to determine the cause of death, including whether Kucsma had a medical condition that could have contributed to his death.

Kucsma had been scuba diving for about a year. He learned how with his wife, Marcia, while on vacation in the Caribbean, said Gorham Fire Chief Robert Lefebvre, who gave Kucsma his first job in 1991 while he was still in college. Kucsma worked his way up in the Gorham Fire Department and was made deputy chief in charge of department training in 2002, Lefebvre said.

“Mike had a real desire to learn, always has, ever since he was a recruit, and he also had a real desire to pass that knowledge on to others,” Lefebvre said. “It’s just created a heck of a hole in the department and it’s going to leave a huge hole in my administration.”

Kucsma had written professional articles on topics as diverse as using rural water supplies and air-rescue firefighting.

Smith worked in North Deering with Kucsma during the 1998 ice storm, when Kucsma was a young firefighter.

“During that Friday, the truck we were on, Engine 8, we did 28 calls that day,” Smith said. “Two were two alarm fires, one was an all- hands and the others were wires down, trees on fire and medical calls. I think we did the most runs that day of any other company – non-stop 7:30 til 4:30, when we finally settled down.

“He was the kind of guy you wanted with you on a day like that. It was truly nonstop and he had your back,” Smith said.

Kucsma was also a skilled cook, Smith said.

“We spend 24 hours a day with each other. It truly becomes a second family,” he said. “We eat with each other, work with each other, drive each other nuts, keep each other happy. Mike was part of that.”

Coworkers said that given how dangerous firefighting can be, they were surprised Kucsma died while enjoying his time off.

“It is a shock,” Smith said. “I just turned 30 years in the Portland Fire Department. Mike just got his 21 years in. Guys younger than me in the fire department aren’t supposed to be dying ahead of me. Kind of like parents having their children pass away.”

Former Portland Fire Chief Fred Lamontagne started his career in Gorham as a volunteer at about the same time Kucsma did.

“He just always was looking to improve the health and safety and ability of the firefighters to be of service to their citizens,” he said. “An outstanding man and just an incredible loss to friends and family and the service as a whole.”

LaMontagne said he was still having trouble reconciling that his friend was gone.

“He just had such incredible passion, for his wife, Marcia, the fire service, fishing and life as a whole,” Lamontagne said. Kucsma fished for salmon on Sebago Lake, striped bass in Portland Harbor and went sport fishing in the Caribbean.

“I think he fished more lakes than the average person will in a lifetime,” he said.

John Brooks, president of Local 740 of the International Association of Fire Fighters and a colleague of Kucsma’s, recalled responding a few years ago from Munjoy Hill Station to a fire on Congress Street that had spread to a second building. He was searching for occupants in the hallway of one of the burning buildings when Kucsma, a member of Engine 6 out of Bramhall Station, showed up with a fire hose to help.

“Hearing him coming, you knew everything was going to be OK,” he said.

Brooks said he knew Kucsma both on and off the job.

“Mike Kucsma knew his job and came to work every day to make a difference,” Brooks said. “To know him was a good thing. To lose him was awful.”

Kucsma is survived by his wife, mother and father. Arrangements for a memorial service have not been finalized, Brooks said.

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

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Twitter: @Mainehenchman