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City expects large crowd to honor fire chief’s life

BRADENTON -- Fire chiefs and firefighters from across Florida are expected to pay their respects Sunday when Bradenton honors late Fire Chief Mark Souders at a public ceremony.

The full-honors ceremony will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Manatee Convention Center in Palmetto, the city announced Thursday.

Because Souders was a former president of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and well-connected among firefighters, his death Wednesday following an apparent heart attack was felt throughout the state.

Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston said the city is preparing for a crowd of between 2,500 and 3,000 people.

“We’re getting calls from across the state,” Poston said. “We’re expecting 200 (fire) vehicles, whether they be fire trucks or cars.”

The news of Souders’ death made an impact in the state capital, where a friend and former colleague now serves as director of the Division of State Fire Marshal.

Julius Halas, a former Sarasota firefighter and Longboat Key chief, worked closely with Souders in the Manatee County Fire Chiefs Association before rising to his current post.

Halas said he spoke to Souders as recently as December. He got the news about Souders’ death Wednesday morning from a local fire official.

“It’s a tragic loss because it’s so sudden,” Halas said. “It’s a tremendous loss for me on a personal and professional basis.”

Halas said he plans to attend Sunday’s ceremony and has heard from fire chiefs from as far away as the Panhandle.

“Mark was one of the leaders in the Florida fire service,” Halas said. “There no doubt will be a number of fire chiefs and fire officials who will attend. It’s a pretty emotional event for us.”

Souders, 55, died Wednesday morning at Blake Medical Center. He served as Bradenton’s fire chief for 14 years after a 20-year career with Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue.

David Ezell, the Bradenton department’s deputy chief of administration, said Souders’ family requested the full-honors ceremony.

Ezell said the most recent full-honors service for a firefighter came in 2001, after West Manatee firefighter/EMT Brian Reed died in the line of duty.

According to Ezell, full-honors ceremonies traditionally feature the following:

n Color guards.

n The use of a caisson on a fire truck to convey the casket.

n A bugler playing “Taps.”

n The crossing of fire truck ladders

n Purple bunting on vehicles and fire stations.

The fire department plans to use its 1926 antique fire truck, Souders’ favorite fire vehicle, to carry the casket, Poston said.

Full-honors services are reserved for firefighters who die while on the job, Ezell said. Because fire chief is a salaried position, Souders is considered to have been on the job even though he suffered his apparent heart attack at home.

Active firefighters who die while not on duty receive lesser honors as do retired firefighters, Ezell said.

Also Thursday, the Manatee County’s civic center authority, made up of county commissioners, voted to waive all fees and costs associated with Souders’ ceremony.

The fees amount to $2,641.20, and county staff would incur about $1,000 in labor and other expenses to prepare the civic center after a Saturday night event.

Commission Chairwoman Carol Whitmore suggested waiving the fees and costs as a courtesy to the city of Bradenton.

“He was a first-in, first-out responder,” Whitmore said of Souders. “He put his life on the line for our county, and I thought it was the least we could do.”

There will be a public viewing from 2 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Kingdom Life Christian Church, 825 Ninth St. W., Bradenton. The public may send flowers to the church, and donations may be sent to the Bradenton FireFighters Association (c/o Bradenton Fire Department, 1010 Ninth Ave. W., Bradenton 34205) to be held in trust for the Mark L. Souders Memorial Educational Fund.

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