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Thousands turn out to salute Bradenton’s fire chief

PALMETTO -- Of all the facets of Bradenton Fire Chief Mark Souders’ full-honors funeral Sunday, perhaps none was as emotional as the very end.

A dispatcher from the Manatee County Emergency Operations Center was patched into the loud-speaker at the Manatee Convention Center and “toned” -- or called -- for Souders.

Those haunting multiple calls for Souders were going out at the same time to fire stations throughout Manatee County.

All knew at that moment that Souders had been called and failed to answer, part of a fire-fighting tradition known as The Final Call.

“Chief Souders does not respond,” the dispatcher finally said as 2,000 funeral attendees stood in silence.

“May the wind always be at his back until we meet again,” the dispatcher finally said.

Three sets of five bells were then rung, symbolizing the end of the chief’s shift.

It was a sad yet tradition-rich end for a man who, according to his friends and family, loved being a fireman, loved his employees, loved service, loved Bradenton, loved Manatee County and loved tradition.

Souders, 55, who led the department for 14 years, died of an apparent heart attack Wednesday morning at Blake Medical Center, fire officials said.

“This would have made him really happy,” City of Bradenton firefighter Matt McCabe said.

The service followed a downtown funeral procession filled with fire equipment from 10 agencies, cross ladders with a huge American flag flying between them, an antique fire engine with bunting holding Souders’ flag-draped caisson, a color guard from Manatee County, a bugler playing taps, bagpipes and, finally, the last dispatch.

The service was not without a sense of humor, which was also befitting the chief.

Those who gave eulogies all told funny stories that captured Souders’ larger-than-life personality and his love for smoking cigars and besting his friends at whatever challenge they wanted to take on.

“He was never an angel until today,” said Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, reflecting on a terrific relationship that reached its zenith when he and Souders worked tirelessly to earn the city of Bradenton Fire Department international accreditation.

Those asked by the family to speak included city of Bradenton deputy chief David Ezell; city of Bradenton firefighter and vice president of local firefighters union 2546 Doug Huffman; and Julius Halas, director of the state fire Marshall’s office and a near lifelong friend of Souders.

But no one drew as big a laugh as Souders’ sister, Laura Traybeck.

“It’s OK to be sad sometimes thinking about Mark,” Traybeck said, “but please promise the family you won’t dwell on his passing.

“Whenever you get sad, I want you to say the following words to yourself and it will help.”

She then began, unexpectedly, to sing: “Wouh, wouh, wouh, wouh, wouh/ brother bought a coconut, he bought it for a dime/ his sister had another one/ she paid it for a lime/ she put the lime in the coconut, she drank them both up/ she put the lime in the coconut/ she called the doctor woke him up.”

“Coconut” by Harry Nilsson, a secret Souders’ favorite, had the crowd roaring.

“I didn’t know he loved that song,” Ezell said later. “That was something he reserved for family. It was really funny.”

Tradition-rich service

The 30-by-60-foot American flag caught the wind and soared 80 feet in the air.

The flag, suspended across Haben Boulevard in front of the Manatee Convention Center, was one of the first tributes to Souders prior to his funeral procession and public service.

The flag flew on a rope between West Manatee Fire Truck 129 and City of Bradenton Tower Truck 19.

Before it was hoisted, the huge flag, which was in a basket, caught the wind and pulled three firefighters down Haben Boulevard.

But the firefighters didn’t let go and made sure the flag never touched earth until it finally took off skyward.

They were Matt McCabe with City of Bradenton, Lt. Jeff Lonzo with West Manatee, and firefighter Nate Bergbom with West Manatee.

“This is all for a lifetime of service to the public,” Bergbom said of the full honors service accorded Souders and the care the firefighters took in getting it all right.

For hundreds of firefighters like Myakka Fire Chief Danny Cacchiotti, it was a day to bring out the Class A dress attire.

“Only for special occasions,” said Cacchiotti, who stood next to his wife, Darlene, watching the funeral procession arrive.

“It’s a very sad day,” Cacchiotti added. “Mark was a good man. He was very forward thinking. I would say visionary. A lot of organizations owe him a lot. He helped so many. Education was key to him. He was very involved in State College of Florida. He will be missed.”

Paul Reda of Cedar Hammock, who came with his family, called it a “sad, but impressive” day.

“It’s impressive to see the brotherhood of fire service in full force,” Reda said.

The funeral also drew non-fire industry people, like Manatee County’s Jim Faulkner, retired from the construction business.

“Mark was a nice guy and a good man,” Faulkner said.

Souders took an active role in getting to know every employee, Ezell said.

“He had a gentle soul about him,” Ezell said. “He always encouraged you to step outside your comfort zone to reach your full potential.”

Many were shocked by Souders’ death because of his fitness -- none more so than Ezell.

“We have a drill where you end up dragging a 180-pound dummy,” Ezell said. “Last spring he did the drill, and he picked up the dummy rather than drag it and carried it out. I’ve hardly seen anyone do that. Even many young firefighters can’t do that.”

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.

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