Thousands of mourners and firefighters from across the Carolinas lined Park Road and filled a dimly lit sanctuary Saturday to honor Richard Sheltra, the young Pineville volunteer firefighter who a week ago apparently got lost or trapped in a burning golf supply store and later died.
Sheltra’s flag-draped coffin was delivered to Forest Hill Church on the back of Pineville Fire Department’s meticulously waxed engine No. 4 after the first of two processions, a 3.7-mile route from Pineville.
Along the way, it passed pockets of mourners and firefighters standing at attention saluting, covering their hearts with their right hands, or waving American flags.
Just before noon, strains of bagpipe music drifted into the sanctuary and then 12 honor guards placed the coffin in front of the alter as the rest of Pineville’s firefighters and hundreds of others followed. They came from such cities as Asheville, Fort Bragg and Zebulon in North Carolina and Rock Hill, Chester and Columbia in South Carolina.
Sheltra always knew he wanted to be a firefighter, he and his cousin, Christina Sheltra, often holding “firefighter dress-ups.” At the entrance of the sanctuary Saturday was an enlarged photo of Sheltra as a toddler pulling on an oversized firefighter helmet.
“Richard had an internal drive that could not be stopped,” Pineville Fire Chief Mike Gerin told the crowded sanctuary about the man many called “Bam Bam.” “He had fire service in his blood. He loved to train. He excelled in (fire) school ... just as much as he succeeded at the Pineville Fire Department. He quickly became the fabric of the department.
“He made us all proud.”
If you don’t believe that there’s brotherhood and the love of your fellow firefighter and the love for Richard, then you’ve not been to Pineville, North Carolina.
Pineville Fire Chief Mike Gerin
Sheltra, 20, Pineville’s 2015 top rookie firefighter and the son of firefighters, was called to the April 30 fire just before 9 p.m. at the Edwin Watts golf store after lightning struck the Countryside shopping center on Pineville-Matthews Road. At some point, Sheltra’s fellow firefighters lost track of him, but he was believed to be on his way out.
He never made it, and had to be pulled out. He was pronounced dead at 10:22 p.m. at Carolinas Medical Center. One other firefighter was treated at the scene and a third was taken to CMC and later released.
Sheltra died from inhaling combustibles, fire officials said.
David Brown, an associate pastor at Forest Hill, said Sheltra prided himself in being the first firefighter at the scene.
“As soon as the call went out, he was ... out of the house to be the first one on site so he could be there to help protect the families involved,” Brown said.
Other eulogists described him as quiet, strong, religiously devout – and was well known for his massive sweet tooth for chocolate chip cookies.
‘Becoming my hero’
As the coffin passed Saturday, Johnnie Farms, 75, brushed away tears along Park Road as her son, Michael, 49, a veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne, saluted. They’d lived near and been friends with the Sheltra family for 43 years.
“My heart’s full,” Johnnie Farris said, waving a small flag with one hand and covering her heart with the other. “We are a community and we feel the loss.”
Inside the church, Blake Sheltra, a cousin, said Richard was in the process of applying for a job with the Charlotte Fire Department.
Richard had written responses to anticipated questions. His cousin read excerpts to the crowd.
“I decided at a young age – watching my parents drop everything and go on a call for help – that being a firefighter was what I was going to do for a job,” Richard wrote. “Spending time in a fire house (with his father) and working the last three years for the Pineville Fire Department, I discovered and learned a lot about the pride and honor that is behind the badge.”
He liked looking after others.
Blake Sheltra’s sister, Christina, said that she and Richard were the same age, went to the same schools and grew up five minutes apart.
“We were best friends,” she said. “We were inseparable ... We were so close that at one point our parents had to insist we stop taking baths together.
“He was the quiet, calm, strength to my loud, sometimes absurd personality.”
Even at a young age he was profoundly loyal and protective, particularly when it came to his family. In fifth grade at Smithfield Elementary, they were assigned to the same class. One day on the playground, Christina and another student got into a tiff.
“As words got more and more harsh, it was obvious that the matter was about to turn physical,” she said. “But do not fear – Richard was there. My sweet, compassionate cousin, my first friend, my protector jumped between us and yelled, ‘Don’t mess with my cousin!’ ”
With one blow, Richard got knocked to the ground. They all ended up in the principal’s office – crying.
“Richard didn’t know at that point,” she said, “but he was slowly but surely becoming my hero.”
Duties on Earth done
Gerin, the Pineville chief, said his department has been moved by the support shown by other departments.
One day last week, he witnessed firefighters from several different departments lining up to wax engine No. 4 that would carry Sheltra’s coffin.
“For every firefighter waxing the truck, there was another standing behind waiting to get a turn,” Gerin said.
“If you don’t believe that there’s brotherhood and the love of your fellow firefighter and the love for Richard, then you’ve not been to Pineville, North Carolina.”
At the service’s end, Gerin performed the ritual ringing of the bell, symbolizing the end of a firefighter’s duty.
Then a recording of a dispatcher from central dispatch drew sniffles, telling Sheltra: “Your duties here on Earth are done, brother, and the nozzle has been passed over to another.”
As the massive crowd filed out, they grabbed a chocolate chip cookie.