SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – For the last year, Suffolk Fire and Rescue has been training a new class of heroes. In that class is a one-of-a-kind recruit. When he graduates from training, there will be no other firefighter like him in Hampton Roads.
In three weeks, Chris Heater will become a Suffolk firefighter.
“I actually grew up watching Backdraft. So, I don’t know. It was just always a calling,” Chris said.
At 33, Chris is the oldest member of his recruit class. “It makes it a little rougher trying to compete with the young guys.”
The trainees are put in challenging, and uncomfortable, situations.
“We put them in confined spaces. We put them at heights where they have probably never been, 100 feet on a ladder,” said Lieutenant Durand Coltrane, who oversees Suffolk Firefighter Recruit Training.
As these trainees fought through grueling conditions, they had no clue Chris had a secret.
“I hid it from them for the longest time that I didn’t have a leg.”
You read that right. Everything the younger guys in the class did on two legs, Chris did on one.
Chris is a retired Marine.
“I always wanted to be in the fire department, but, you know, 9/11 happened and I was in the 8th grade, so I joined the Marine Corps instead.”
He spent 14 years in the service. Then, in 2018, he fell 25 feet in a non-combat related incident.
After a year of rehab, doctors at Walter Reid had to amputate Chris’s right leg below the knee.
“You start to really think, like, this is probably it. I’m done. You know? You see a lot of vets that just can’t get forward, so you have to figure out what you’re going to do. You get into Walter Reed and those guys up there, they’re world class. They really start to take care of you, and the mindset changes when you’re up there.”
Chris credits Walter Reed staff, and his family, with changing his mentality and reminding him of his dream to become a firefighter.
“I started volunteering out of Moyock, and I just said we’re going to go all for it,” Chris said.
Chris decided to make it a career, and he set his sights on Suffolk Fire and Rescue. He made his mark from day one.
“Chief Barakey and Chief Adams actually laughed because I showed up to my interview with no leg on. I was actually on crutches. I think I was a couple of weeks out of surgery.”
Lt. Coltrane said his team was excited to meet Chris after they learned he only had one leg. “I heard he was prior military as well as many of us here at the fire department. So, I was rooting for him.”
Chris said, “My biggest thing was I didn’t want to be treated different. I just want to be the same as everybody else. I don’t want them to be like, ‘Oh, he’s only got one leg.'”
On the first day of training, instructors asked Chris what the hardest challenge would be.
“I told them we’d figure it out together, because I don’t know. You don’t know until you’re in that situation.”
Challenges did pop up, but Chris and his team got through them by making adjustments and using humor.
“I did get caught up on a few things, and I had to tell people, ‘Hey, I think my leg fell off.’ Or ‘I think my leg is loose.’ So, we needed to address that, but Walter Reed was able to fix those issues, so it won’t happen now.”
Lt. Coltrane said watching Chris train, and lead, has been inspirational.
“He went through what we call ‘The Worm’ one time, and we literally said, ‘You’re going to get out of here even if you have to lose a limb. You have to get out of here to save your life.’ And when he went through the worm, he actually lost his leg in there, but he kept working, and got through it, and got out of there with his team. He turned around and helped the rest of his team get out of there. So, that’s commendable.”
Now, Chris is his class president. He’s treated just like everyone else, and whenever he reflects on one of his darkest moments, he reminds himself, “There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”
Chris and his classmates graduate Thursday, October 27.
Chris is not the only amputee firefighter in Virginia. On October 11, 2018, Carter Lewis was involved in a crash, on his first full day on the job with Hanover County Fire-EMS. He lost his right leg as a result. Lieutenant Brad Clark died at the scene. Lewis continued on to become a Firefighter/EMT in Hanover County.