BRADENTON -- Bradenton’s fire chief lived his life the way he ran his department, those who knew him best said Wednesday.
Mark Souders worked hard to present an image of strength and vitality, lifting weights and entering fitness competitions with fellow firefighters.
Under his leadership, the Bradenton Fire Department got the same attention for 14 years, its international accreditation and sterling reputation bearing witness to the technical and operational progress Mr. Souders demanded.
That’s why Mr. Souders’ unexpected death Wednesday at age 55 from an apparent cardiac arrest stunned his colleagues and the city officials with whom he worked.
“This was a guy who lifted 50-pound dumbbells,” said Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, a close friend. “He’s the last guy you would expect this to happen to.”
Deputy Chief of Administration David Ezell said West Manatee Fire Rescue and Manatee County EMS received a 911 call at 8:25 a.m. Wednesday from Mr. Souders’ fiancee.
Paramedics found Mr. Souders unresponsive and in full cardiac arrest and were unable to revive him. He was pronounced dead at 9:16 a.m. at Blake Medical Center, Ezell said.
Ezell said the department was “grieving” the loss of “a part of our family.”
“He was a great leader, he really was,” Ezell said. “He was inspirational. He brought a lot of things to the fire service that elevated the department to a new operational level.”
Bradenton City Councilman Gene Gallo, who served 11 years as fire chief, also considered Mr. Souders a close friend. The two worked together from the time Mr. Souders was an administrator at the Cedar Hammock Fire District in southern Manatee, before he was hired as Bradenton’s fire chief in January 1997.
The city’s fire department grew strong under Mr. Souders, Gallo said. In 2004, the department received accreditation from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, becoming one of only 96 departments in the world to receive the distinction, after a two-year effort to improve practices.
“He was so far advanced in what it took to run a fire department that it would scare you,” Gallo said. “He set the tone technically that we never had here. He brought us out of a dark age.
“His first, heartfelt feeling was for his men. He was a firefighter and a fire chief from head to toe. ... At first, it was a shock. Now it just hurts my heart. I thought an awful lot of Mark.”
While Mr. Souders wasn’t afraid of the hard work necessary to make improvements to the department, he didn’t always need to be front and center, according to Poston.
Poston remembered attending the accreditation hearing with Mr. Souders in New Orleans. It was rare for a mayor to attend such a hearing, and Mr. Souders agreed to make a five-minute presentation, then open up the floor to questions both he and the mayor would answer, Poston said.
“He introduced himself, introduced me, said we’re really happy to be here, and here’s the mayor of Bradenton. He threw me under the bus,” Poston said, laughing at the memory.
City Clerk Callahan informed city council members of Mr. Souders’ death at about 9:45 a.m. Wednesday while they were in the middle of a workshop about upcoming budget priorities on the second floor of the Bradenton Municipal Auditorium.
The meeting ended abruptly.
“It’s just a really tough day for us,” Callahan said. “We’ve been doing this together for so long. He loved the fire department so much. It’s just a shock.”
Gallo said Mr. Souders called in sick Tuesday and was diagnosed with respiratory problems. Mr. Souders had a history of sleep apnea and underwent multiple surgeries in an effort to correct the condition, Gallo said.
Police Chief Michael Radzilowski said Mr. Souders was dedicated to his profession.
“It was a joy working with him every day in public safety for the city,” he said. “I’m just in shock. He was a gentleman and a professional. Even if he disagreed with you, he never raised his voice.”
Mr. Souders, a Manatee High graduate, earned chief fire officer designation and was a past president of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association.
He also was the program manager for State College of Florida’s fire science technology course for the past seven years, according to Idelia Phillips, SCF’s director of career and technical education.
“This was a shock to me personally,” said Mike Mears, SCF’s provost and vice president of baccalaureate programs. “It was a big loss to the community.”
Cedar Hammock Division Chief Daniel Center rose through the ranks with Mr. Souders. The two men served together as deputy chiefs before Mr. Souders moved on to Bradenton.
“He was just a great guy. He was a mentor for me,” Center said. “It’s pretty somber here. It’s upsetting, disturbing news to hear a comrade and co-worker passed away. It’s a shock to our system.”
Center said Mr. Souders enjoyed motorcycles, body building and skeet and target shooting away from work. But his thoughts were never far from the fire department.
“When Mark got involved in something, he got fully immersed in it,” Center said. “His life centered around his education and the fire department. Those were his passions.”
Mr. Souders leaves behind his fiancee -- Gallo declined to name her, but said the pair planned to marry in March -- as well as a daughter, Lauren Elliot, and grandson, Brogan Elliot, of Denver. A brother, John Souders, lives in Sarasota.
Ezell said that because Souders died while serving as fire chief, he will be entitled to full honors. Funeral arrangements are pending, he said.
The city hired Souders in 1997 to replace the retiring Jim Hackle. Previously, Souders worked at the Cedar Hammock Fire District as a firefighter from 1978-82, a fire inspector from 1982-87 and then fire marshal. From 1989-91 he served as Cedar Hammock’s assistant fire chief before taking over the deputy fire chief position.
Born in Albuquerque, N.M., Souders’ family moved to Florida in 1968.
-- Beth Burger, Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.