nj.com - The matriarch calls it the "Wirkus Circus," and the ringmaster is her son, Lathey, who is named after a Texan only known as "Red" but that’s a different story. This one starts when Lathey Wirkus was a boy who dreamed of being a fireman.
"I don’t know why, I was just intrigued by the whole thing," said Wirkus, now 55, and a deputy chief in the Elizabeth Fire Department.
So he hung around the local firehouse in Union enough to be adopted a kind of a kid mascot.
"I was 8 or 9, and they used to pay me a quarter to make their beds," Wirkus said. "They did stuff you can’t do anymore. They’d pick me up at my house in one of the command cars, and let me ride in the trucks. Once they got together and bought me a fire helmet."
Wirkus said one particular fireman — "Mr. Fretz" — was particularly good to him. That Mr. Fretz was Frederick Fretz. His son, also Frederick, is now the chief of the Union Fire Department.
That’s how things work in firefighting families and Wirkuses are no different. Lathey Wirkus’ interest in emergency work first spread to his brother, Tim, now a battalion chief in Union, then to their mother, Barbara, who became an ambulance volunteer in Union, and Lathey’s son, Patrick, a recent member of the Elizabeth force. Lathey’s wife, Andreea, is an Elizabeth EMT.
All those Wirkuses, all those stories. Lathey and Barbara delivered a baby on New Year’s Eve on the Garden State Parkway almost 30 years ago.
"I delivered it, but I had him cut the umbilical cord," Barbara said. "I couldn’t do it."
Lathey said it’s typical of the family work.
"What can you say when your wife ends up taking your son to the hospital after a fire rescue?" he said.
"I could have been killed in there, and the lady wasn’t even there. She was out shopping."
Last Saturday night, Patrick Wirkus received a valor award from the state’s Fireman’s Mutual Benevolent Association. He shared the award with Elizabeth Deputy Chief Donald Peterson, Capt. Steve McConlogue and firefighters Sean Horton, Ryan Lin and Salvator Barreto for their rescue of a girl from a house fire last April that left Wirkus hospitalized with smoke inhalation.
And if anything like his father, there will be more awards and more smoke inhalation, dehydration, burns and all the other things fire does to the people who fight it.
Lathey Wirkus doesn’t show off the skin grafts on his hands, or point to the skin on his face that was bleached by fire three decades ago. But he does keep a collection of his old helmets, nailed in a row on a wall in the home office where he also stores hundreds of videos of local fires. All those fires, all those stories.
The first helmet is from 1985. The visor is melted and the leather cracked from heat so intense it made a plastic rescue basket catch fire. Lathey Wirkus was in a second floor room by then, shielding a man from flames that burned his fire retardant gear.
"The fire was blowing out the windows but I thought I could make it, so I went in. I threw the guy out on the roof, and they got him down. When I got down, a cop there said to me, ‘the skin’s hanging off your face.’"
That was his first trip to the burn unit at St. Barnabas. The next came four years later when he went into a burning house and searched a fully engulfed bedroom for a woman he thought was there.
"Her daughter was screaming that her mother was trapped up there. I thought, ‘I can make this,’ " Wirkus said.
He did, but then couldn’t get out.
"I got lost. I tried to go out one window, but there was an air conditioner and my tank wouldn’t fit through. Then I tried to jump out the another one but I missed. I tried again and went out."
That fire left him with third-degree burns on his hands and legs, which was getting off easy.
"I could have been killed in there, and the lady wasn’t even there. She was out shopping. And it was arson. Her son lit the bedroom on fire because he was mad at her. He went to jail."
Lathey admits he might have been a little reckless back in the day, but the job requires saving people and sometimes sense of duty simply outweighs common sense.
Fast forward to last year, and it was now son, Patrick, trying to saw through the bars of a window where a girl was trapped.
"She had her face pressed against the bars, gasping for any air," said Patrick, 29, and a member of the Elizabeth force since 2012.
Patrick Wirkus didn’t take time to gear up with a mask as he went up the ladder with a gas saw capable of cutting metal. But the smoke was so thick it clogged the air intake. The girl became unconscious before the firefighters could pull the bars off, and Patrick leaned in to find her.
"I got my hands on her but she was dead weight and I was taking a beating up there," he said.
In firefighter parlance taking a beating means smoke inhalation and unimaginable heat blistering skin. He had to be relieved, but when the girl was brought down unconscious, Patrick, who is also an EMT, revive her with a nasal airway and air bag before his own trip to the hospital.
"I guess I taught him the wrong way to do things," his father said proudly.