Bradenton bids farewell to its fire chief

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

That’s when a fictitious recording played of Souders being “toned” or called by his dispatch for the final time.

“Chief Souders does not respond,” the dispatcher finally said as 2,000 funeral attendees stood in silence at the Manatee Convention Center. “May the wind always be at his back until we meet again.”

A total of 15 bells were then rung, symbolizing the chief’s final roll call.

It was a sad, but tradition-rich end for a man who, according to his friends and family, loved being a fireman, loved his staff, 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 of the service, which had bagpipes, a huge American flag flying over Haben Boulevard, a funeral procession filled with fire equipment from 10 different agencies, a color guard and a flag draped casket.

The service also reflected Souders’ sense of humor.

Those who gave eulogies, including Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, City of Bradenton Deputy Chief Dave Ezell and close friends and fellow firemen Doug Huffman and Julius Halas, 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.

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

Laura told the crowd, “It’s OK to be sad sometimes thinking about Mark, 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 Souders’ favorite, had the crowd roaring.

A tradition-rich service

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

The flag, suspended across Haben Boulevard, was one of the first tributes to Souders at 12:17 p.m. Sunday prior to his funeral procession and public service.

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

As they we unfurling the flag, firefighters successfully fought having the flag touch the ground before the flag hit the air.

The three firefighters who hoisted the flag were McCabe, 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 Souders.

A procession for Souders began at 12:30 p.m., with fire engines rolling solemnly through downtown Bradenton, ending up in Palmetto.

Firefighers came from St. Petersburg, Longboat Key, Hillsborough, Temple Terrace, North Port, Marion County, Tampa, Palm Harbor, Sarasota and Manatee.

By 10:30 a.m. Sunday, the streets of Bradenton were already alive with fire trucks of different colors whose firefighters had come from all over the state to be a part of saying goodbye to Bradenton’s chief.

The route moved west from Griffith-Cline Funeral Home at 720 Manatee Ave. W., ending at the Manatee Convention Center.

Souders was a former president of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and, as such, had made friends all over the state.

Souders is credited by many as bringing the Bradenton Fire Department to a level of excellence.

In 2004, under Souders’ leadership, the department received accreditation from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, becoming one of only 96 departments in the world to receive the distinction.

“He was so far advanced in what it took to run a fire department that it would scare you,” Bradenton City Councilman Gene Gallo told The Herald last week. “He set the tone technically that we had here. He brought us out of a dark age.”

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.

Souders leaves behind an experienced crew. Deputy chiefs Chuck Edwards and Ezell have nearly 39 years of combined tenure with the department.

Edwards, the deputy chief of operations, has been with the department for 22 years. Ezell, the deputy chief of administration, has 17 years experience.

Ezell said the department was “grieving” the loss of “a part of our family.”

“He was a great leader,” Ezell said of Souders last week. “He was inspirational.”

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