Death on the fire line: A family's heartbreaking loss

- "The whole world just went dark." That's how 22-year-old Kirsten Rucker describes the day she learned her father had been killed at a wildfire. 

"My dad, he was like my best friend, and not a day goes by that I don't miss him," said the young woman, 15 years later.  

Steve Rucker, 38, was a veteran Novato Fire Department engineer when he volunteered for an out-of-town assignment in October 2003. 

Trying to protect a home at the Cedar Fire in San Diego, Rucker and his crew were overrun by towering flames and intense heat.

His colleagues survived, but were unable to save Steve, who had fallen as they all tried to flee to safety. 

"Fortunately, I had my children and so I had to get up every day," recalled Steve's widow Cathy, of learning to live without her husband.  

She and her two children are still in the Novato home the family shared.   

The recent deaths of six fire personnel on California wildfires startles and saddens the family.

The three are in a unique position to understand what loved ones are now experiencing. "It's not something you get over, it's something you get through," Cathy Rucker told KTVU.

"It's very much a day to day thing, and if people can help you in any small way, accept that help. But you get stronger over time, and you will get through it."

Steve Rucker's memorial service at the Marin Civic Center drew thousands of mourners from fire agencies all over the state and the nation. 

He was eulogized as a man who loved his family and career, a fun-loving and friendly man who never hesitated to help someone in need. 

Cathy Rucker remembers the tributes and receiving a U.S. flag from Governor Gray Davis. 
But as supportive as the fire service is to its fallen members, ultimately every grieving family must find its own path. 

"I'd tell those other families they're not alone, other people have made it through this," said teenage son Wesley Rucker. 

He was only two when his father died, which makes his emotions all the more complicated. "It feels like I'm supposed to miss someone I never knew," shared Wesley, "but that absence is consuming, and I feel like my life would be a lot different if I did know him but I don't and I just have to deal with that." 

Kirsten, 7 at the time, cherishes her memories. "My dad was funny, caring, hopeful, " she said, showing a photograph of Steve in full turn-out gear, teaching fire safety at her preschool. 

Kirsten was old enough that she can remember her dad picking her up from class, and their lunch dates in his red pick-up truck. 

She also remembers the day the call came. 

"I can remember a lot of people crying in this house, and I had no idea who they were," recalled Kirsten, "and then my mom took me out on the porch and told me what happened."

The family finds comfort knowing that Steve was happy in his dream job.

He had wanted to be a fireman from a young age, and at Novato FD, ran the annual Christmas toy drive, and was involved in community programs. 

"He was a very hands-on dad," reflected Cathy, thumbing through photo albums chronicling the family's vacations. 

After Steve's death, she gave up her chemist career to stay home with her children.

More recently, she completed law school, and enjoys providing legal aid for those in need.

"I love doing that, I love giving back to my community, helping people who are down and out, that Steve used to help when he was a paramedic," she noted.  

As the Rucker children reach adulthood, they are trying to be as positive and passionate about their goals, as their dad was. 

"He was a hero," said Kirsten softly, "and every day I try to make my dad proud of me."

Every year since Steve's death, a golf tournament is held in his honor to benefit the Novato Fire Foundation. 

Proceeds support programs such as Fire Squirts Camp, the Automatic External Defibrillator Program, and community CPR training.

This year's event is September 24, at Stone Tree Golf Club in Novato.

For more information, check novatofire.org.


 

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