Breaking News
More () »

'We were his family.' Firefighters remember Chief who died unexpectedly at fallen firefighter's funeral

Gary Sacco and Joel Barnes will be forever linked in their deaths, but they were also linked in life. Sacco was teaching an officer leadership class, and Barnes was recently his student.

NEW GLOUCESTER, Maine — The firefighter community in Maine has suffered immensely this month, losing one veteran Fire Chief and a young Captain within just weeks of each other.

Oxford Fire Chief Gary Sacco died Sunday while he was in Portland honoring the life of Capt. Joel Barnes. Sacco suffered a medical event at Barnes' funeral service and was rushed to Maine Medical Center where staff tried to resuscitate him for over an hour. 

"I quickly got to Maine Med when I heard the news. I was with him when he passed" says Oxford Deputy Chief Shawn Cordwell.

Cordwell continued, "The members are stunned, devastated for his family. We're struggling, but we're strong."

The two firefighters will be forever linked in their deaths, but on Monday NEWS CENTER Maine learned they were also linked in life. Sacco was teaching an officer leadership class and Barnes was recently his student.  

Sacco, who was 63 years old, joined the Oxford Fire Department as it's chief in 2017. He was with the New Gloucester Fire Department for nearly 20 years, 12 years as it's chief. He also served in the Westbrook Fire Department.

RELATED: Oxford Fire Chief suffers fatal medical event at fallen firefighter's funeral

Sacco retired in 2012 to Florida, but he and his wife missed Maine and he particularly missed the Fire Department. They returned home, and Sacco started his service at the Oxford Fire Department.

New Gloucester Fire Captain Scott Doyle worked with Sacco from 1996 to 2012 and says he wishes he could thank his former chief.  

"He was there for us. His office door was always open, and his home door was always open," Doyle said through tears, remembering the man he considered to be like a second a father. 

Doyle started with the department in 1996, the same year Sacco did.  Doyle said Sacco had a tough exterior, but a warm heart. It's what Capt. Doyle will remember most.

"He was the chief, so he was the boss a lot of the times, and then you got to see the warmer side".

Another sudden loss in Maine's firefighting community has many struggling with the 'whys' and 'what ifs'.

"A lot of unfinished conversations, unfinished favors," said Doyle. "We all have to to live with that guilt of not taking the extra 30 minutes or an hour to stop and say 'Hi' or say 'Thank you'."

Governor Janet Mills released a statement after Sacco's passing: 

Our hearts, already broken by the loss of Captain Joel Barnes, also mourn the loss of Oxford Fire Chief Gary Sacco. In a testament to his own character, Chief Sacco lost his life while honoring that of his fallen brother, fellow firefighter Captain Barnes. I join with people across Maine in offering my thoughts and prayers to Chief Sacco’s family and friends, the Oxford Fire Department, and all of Maine’s first responders. The State of Maine has given two of its best to the Heavens.

Capt. Barnes died on March 1 in a Berwick apartment fire when he threw himself over another firefighter saving his life, according to fire officials. 

Credit: Charles Blaquiere

Anyone who wishes to pay respects to Chief Sacco can attend his visitation on Friday, March 15 at the Fortin Funeral Home at 217 Turner St. in Auburn from 5 to 9 p.m.

The funeral for Chief Sacco will be held on Saturday, March 16 at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School at 256 Main St. in South Paris. The service will begin at 11 a.m.

Before You Leave, Check This Out