PAW PAW, Mich. (WOOD) — A Paw Paw firefighter who was killed on the job during the ice storm was laid to rest Saturday.
Lt. Ethan Quillen, 28, was an unpaid volunteer firefighter — all of Paw Paw’s firefighters are. He was also a U.S. Marine.
“He was a great guy. Father, husband, volunteered his time here for free, gave his life for free,” Fire Chief Jim DeGroff said the day after his death. “Ethan was the example of the Paw Paw Volunteer Fire Department.”
Public visitation began at 10 a.m. at Paw Paw High School and funeral services followed.
The funeral began with a call to worship then a eulogy by Fire Chief Jim DeGroff.
“When he answered a single question during his interview in 2019, he was asked what type of compensation he was looking for and he responded with ‘I want no compensation. I just want to serve my community.’ These were not just empty words to him. He was truly dedicated to what he believed in and his passion for firefighting was honorable,” DeGroff said.
His chief talked about not just his sense of duty and honor but his sense of humor, often lighting the emotional load in the fire station.
But his most important job was as a husband and father to his 2-year-old daughter.
“She was a shining star in his eyes, a bright spot in his life. His family meant everything to him,” said DeGroff.
Quillen’s cousin Cy Taylor thanked the community for rallying around his family during this time.
“I’ve always looked up to Ethan. For the longest time, I wanted to follow in his footsteps. When he left for the Marines, I was so convinced that I was going to do the same thing and I even told some people that. Although that isn’t the way my life ended up going, I’ve still always been the proud younger cousin of the service that he gave and continued to give until his last breath,” he said.
Following the firemen and Marine Corps prayers, Christ Community Church of Allegan Pastor Wally Coots explained the legacy Quillen left behind.
“It wasn’t about him. He loved and was committed to many things. And what gave him the strength to focus on those things and others, in general, is his life verse. It’s found in Philippians 4:13. Many of you may know it. ‘I can do all through Him who gives me strength.’…That ‘Him’ is Jesus Christ who gave him (the) strength to show his love of country by becoming a Marine,” Coots said.
Coots said Quillen’s mother told him that when Quillen was younger, he wanted to be a firefighter. As he got older, he added wanting to be a Marine to the list.
“Maybe that’s part of his legacy: a love of country,” he said.
Coots said Quillen’s love of community is what called him to serve.
“Anyone needing help, Ethan was there for them. That’s who he was. That, too, is part of his legacy,” he said. “We can learn from that.”
His love for family, Coots explained, was inspiring.
“At church, it was so fun to see this rough and tough fireman, this Marine just melt in the hands of a 3-year-old,” he said. “We all loved watching Ethan so tender and loving.”
He said the Sunday before his death, Quillen, his parents and grandparents prepared coffee time following the service.
“Our church members, as their final memory, remember Ethan serving his church family,” Coots said.
The meditation was followed by the playing of “Amazing Grace” by the bagpipes honor guard. Flowers surrounded a table holding a photo of Quillen and his daughter, a ballcap and other memorabilia.
“Your family was a part of you and your passion. And now, it’s our turn to support them. Your family is our family. Rest easy brother… we’ll take it from here,” Chief DeGroff said.
After the funeral, Quillen’s body was placed on a Paw Paw fire truck. Dozens in the community lined the streets near the Paw Paw Fire Department as fire trucks and emergency vehicles from across West Michigan escorted Quillen from Paw Paw High School to Oakwood Cemetery in Allegan. The burial service was private.
Following Friday night’s storm, Van Buren County Sheriff Dan Abbott said he reached out to the Michigan Department of Transportation for help plowing local roads for the procession because a road crew worker with the Van Buren County Road Commission was killed in a construction zone crash on Friday.
Quillen, a former Marine, joined the Paw Paw Fire Department in September 2019. He was killed on Feb. 22 when a power line fell on him when his crew was sent to a scene in Almena Township.
Abbott said Quillen’s death has impacted public safety officers throughout the county.
“We worked hand in hand with these guys,” he said. “We know these guys on a personal level. So, even though they’re not in our uniform or working for us, we show up at the same scenes. We do a lot of the same things together. You build that friendship, that comradery, so when something like this hits them, it hits everybody.”
The Paw Paw community has come out in force to support his family. Local businesses have run fundraisers for them and a GoFundMe account has raised almost $138,000. The fire chief said letters of support have come in from all around the country.
Teri Charlton, a Paw Paw resident, said on the night of Quillen’s death she remembers the sight of fire trucks racing by her home.
“I watched them all go by and I thought maybe a house fire but I had no clue something like this. You know, devastating,” said Charlton.
She was one of the many taking time to honor the lieutenant for his service and sacrifice Saturday.
“I mean, he was a hero to all of us. If we needed him, they were here, he was here,” she said.
Now the hope is that the community continues to wrap their arms around Quillen’s family and the area’s first responders.
“They spend hours away from their families, they spend it out in all kinds of weather, they’re put in harm’s way all the time,” said Paw Paw resident Bradley Grahame. “I feel like if they’re willing to do that, the least I can do is honor them.”
“If the guys need something or you see them on the street, thank them. Thank them for what they do, be appreciative of them,” added Grahame.
Quillen’s name will be added to the fallen public safety officers memorial outside the Van Buren County Courthouse.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Pastor Wally Coots’ last name. We regret the error, which has since been corrected.