The tears drip onto the shoulders of his dress blue uniform.
Mark Rine is being honored as the Columbus Firefighter of the Month. It’s a prestigious distinction among firefighters that a small percentage receive in their careers, and at 35, Rine might be the youngest firefighter in the city’s history to receive it.
Rine was nominated by his old firefighting buddies at Station 8. And the nominating letter, penned by his good friend Lt. Steve Kerns, embarrasses Rine.
It talks about Rine being one of the best firefighters and paramedics that Columbus has had. It notes his tireless work to help pass the state’s new presumptive cancer law that would allow firefighters and their families to collect compensation if a firefighter is diagnosed with a work-related cancer. And it praises his life-saving cancer-prevention crusade.
“You are not getting this award because you have cancer,” said Columbus Fire Chief Kevin O’Connor. “I want everyone to hear that. You are getting it because you are a great firefighter, and you have put us before yourself.”
Suggest to Rine that he is a hero on a good day, and he will roll his eyes. Say it on a bad day, and you might get a tongue lashing about how it's insulting to Jesus Christ to call him that.
But if you retrace his three-year journey across the state and beyond, you will find a trail of firefighters who credit him for saving their lives.
There is no way of knowing exactly how many firefighters practice what Rine preaches to them. But there is plenty of evidence for even Rine to acknowledge he might have made a difference.
Some fire departments established cancer-prevention committees almost immediately after he spoke to them. Some chiefs displayed standard operating procedures on the station wall for how all firefighters must clean themselves and their gear after a fire. Some firefighters finally went to cancer screenings and discovered cancer early enough to be treated. Some held pancake breakfasts or chicken barbecues to raise the money for more gear.
That was the case in the Orange Township Fire Department in Delaware County, where the day after Rine spoke in front of 62 firefighters, Chief Matt Noble laid down a new law.
“Boys, you are going to do this for the protection of our crews,” he said. “Everyone makes it home safely, and everyone enjoys their retirement.”
The department also conducted an internal survey, said Lt. Scott Rice. It showed five of the 41 firefighters who responded have been diagnosed with cancer.
Not even the chief knows who they are.
'He saved us in so many ways'
The volunteer firefighters sometimes would leave the family barbecue to go fight a fire and return to the barbecue covered in soot and filth.
They wore melted, dirty helmets like badges of honor. They rarely cleaned their gear and never wiped themselves down at a fire scene. They couldn’t go back to the firehouse to shower because there wasn’t a shower.
At least a half-dozen of the 35 members of the Kalida Fire Department, about 110 miles northwest of Columbus, had been diagnosed with some form of cancer. And others with ominous spots on their skin had never been checked by a doctor.
They called Mark Rine for help. He arrived in the tiny, blue-collar town of 1,500 in summer 2015.
Two years later at a massive blaze, the lifesaving changes were obvious to Chief Dale Schulte. All of his guys were wearing their full gear for seven hours, even during the hot, nasty process of gutting the house.
The fire trucks were stocked with cleaning wipes they used at the scene. His guys scolded firefighters from other departments for wearing shorts. Women brought them food, but no one would eat it until they were able to clean up back at the station.
“Everyone bought into Mark’s message,” Schulte said. “He saved us in many ways.”
There is still more to be done in Kalida, in Putnam County, and the hundreds of other volunteer departments around Ohio.
It’s in these places that Rine’s help is needed the most. These are the factory workers, bankers, truck drivers and engineers who don’t have a union or even full-time fire chief focused on protecting them from cancer, let alone the newest firetrucks or latest equipment.
In Kalida, they still don’t have a shower. And there is no money in their annual $65,000 budget to install one. That project would cost a minimum of $50,000 because they would have to add on to the 50-year-old fire station.
Bob Unverferth, a volunteer firefighter in Kalida, ignored the red spot on his right cheek that just wouldn’t go away.
The week after Rine delivered his powerful speech in Kaldia, Unverferth finally visited the doctor.
The spot was pre-cancerous, and the doctor told him he was lucky he didn’t wait much longer. They used nitrogen to freeze extract the spot that ran deep beneath his skin.
“If Mark hadn’t come, I might not be alive,” said Unverferth, 67, who has been a volunteer firefighter for 32 years. “We have come a long way since Mark was here.”
Vital cancer screenings
Moles have dotted 38-year-old Cal Holloway’s skin since puberty, but he didn’t give them much thought while fighting fires in Dayton the past 16 years.
Then, in summer 2016, Mark Rine gave a presentation to the Dayton Fire Department and said that cancer was killing firefighters far more than fire.
Holloway wasn’t present for the speech, but he heard that Rine had arranged for a dermatologist to perform cancer screenings on any firefighter who wanted checked.
Why not, Holloway figured. He already was on duty that day.
A few weeks later, Holloway opened a letter explaining that a spot on his leg and one on his left shoulder were cancerous. He had stage 2 melanoma.
“I had no symptoms,” he thought to himself while lying on his stomach as a doctor cut beef-jerky-size pieces of cancerous skin off his body.
Cancer screenings are not mandated for firefighters in Ohio, though many departments require annual physicals. But nearly all of the 1,300 firefighters in Ohio who responded to a statewide Dispatch survey said they would like their departments to require free screenings.
There is clear evidence that a simple screening from a dermatologist could save many firefighters from Mark Rine’s fate.
'God has a different plan'
The retired firefighters are packed inside the local VFW hall in Merion Village drinking cans of Budweiser and Miller Lite for lunch while lamenting their bad backs and creaky knees.
Rine tells them he is going to die soon. He has terminal cancer and it was caused by being a firefighter.
He tells them Ohio now has a law that allows firefighters to file for compensation for themselves or their families if they were diagnosed with cancer. He explains the fine print of the law while the older men start looking down at spots that cover their skin. Many of them wouldn't qualify for benefits or financial help under the new law, which exempts anyone older than 70 years old.
Rine is soon surrounded by the retirees who are patting him on the back, grabbing his arms and telling him what a difference he is making. A couple use the hero word.
“I’d rather be on a ladder truck or making a medic run with those guys,” he says. “That was who I am. But I guess God had a different plan.”
— Reach Mike Wagner at firstname.lastname@example.org; reach Lucas Sullivan at email@example.com.