On December 5, 2005, former Willow, Alaska, EMS chief and overall great public servant Laurie “Scooter” McCutcheon passed away tragically and too soon, trapped by an early-morning blaze in her home. I responded to that fire.
Then I was a young firefighter with the Willow Fire Department and an EMS responder for Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Like many rural responders I wore multiple hats and often had to choose which role to respond in. Scooter bridged those agencies with her commitment to her community. I lost a mentor and a friend that morning in the smoldering Alaskan darkness.
When we heard the location, we all knew whose house it was. As it was a fire with no information on whether anyone made it out, I responded with the local squad. I had the arguable fortune of having the most experience with fatal fires and was hopeful we could get there in time to make a difference. As we pulled up on scene, it was obvious we could not. The house was fully involved, flames reaching into the night. Scooter was gone.
Assigned the task of identifying and preserving evidence, I was charged with keeping the less-experienced responders shielded from unnecessary trauma. The heartbreaking assignment was an honor, because it afforded me the opportunity to protect her for once—instead of her protecting me from my own ignorance or mistake.
Scooter McCutcheon was an icon in the area between Big Lake and Willow, larger than life in true Alaskan fashion. She helped form the volunteer fire department and served as an EMS responder for a quarter century before muscular dystrophy forced her to retire from operations in 2002.
Unbowed, she continued as an educator, skills proctor, member of the department’s board of supervisors, and parent of an active Willow firefighter. You called her “Scooter,” or you didn’t get to talk to her—it was that simple.
I lost my wedding band on that fire. It must have happened while taking my gloves off during a break, the band slipping off my finger somewhere on the fireground. I didn’t even notice until I got home.
Panicked because I couldn’t afford a new one, my wife and I tore the house and car apart to find it. I searched through my turnout gear as ferociously as if there were a missing child inside. We drove back to the fire scene, and I searched everywhere I’d been. No ring. I was devastated. We would have to wait until tax season to buy a new one.
Five months later I wanted to give it just one more shot. Otherwise, my wife and I would be heading to Anchorage the next day to pick out a new band. I contacted Kel Jacobs, Scooter’s surviving daughter, and asked permission to return to the scene. Kel carries on her mother’s legacy and is a leader in her own right, one of my mentors from the Willow Fire Department. She gave us the thumbs up, and Alma and I drove the 15 miles out to Scooter’s house to look around.
The snow was gone, the ground dry, the sun out—perfect conditions for a ground search. We walked slowly around the shell of the home and carefully combed the ground. No luck. Several times I felt like someone was watching us, though nobody else was there. We drove home in disappointment.
Fifteen miles of quiet highway later, I pulled into our driveway. We both opened our doors at the same time, and I heard a distinct ting sound from the tire behind my wife. Alma heard it too and went to investigate.
There was the ring, shining gloriously on the ground. It had just fallen out of the tread of the tire.
Science would say that when we parked at Scooter’s house, we did so right on top of it, and it got stuck in the tread of the tire. But science would be hard-pressed to explain how the ring stayed in the tire—in April weather, at 65 mph on the highway, followed by not one but two gravel roads where the car bounced all over the place.
Science can’t explain that, but I can: Scooter found it and held it in place with all the force of her rowdiness from life. It stayed there until we got home and she could let it fall so I’d find it. The ring is not undamaged and carries multiple scars from its trip to Scooter and back. I leave them as is, looking at them sometimes and remembering when a great leader played one last prank on me.
That’s what mentorship does: It leaves marks. You remember the people who impact your life and career. If you want to make a difference and help protect your partner, your fresh recruits, then educate them on things they can benefit from. Help them mature and evolve into safer, more productive partners.
We all have stories, but the ones of those who have inspired you along the way are the ones that never die.
Thanks, Scooter, we’ll keep taking it from here.
Christian Hartley is fire chief for the city of Houston, Alaska. He is a second-generation responder who has worked in EMS, corrections, and the fire service since 1999.