Heroes praised

Two volunteer firefighters were remembered as heroes Thursday as thousands gathered in a small southern Ontario town to honour the men who died battling a blaze.

District Chief Mike Grosz carries the helmet of fallen firefighter Ray Walter through Listowel

District Chief Mike Grosz carries the helmet of fallen firefighter Ray Walter through Listowel

LISTOWEL, Ont. — Two volunteer firefighters were remembered as heroes Thursday as thousands gathered in a small southern Ontario town to honour the men who died battling a blaze.

Premier Dalton McGuinty was among those who paid tribute to Ray Walter, 30, and Ken Rea, 56. The men died last week after part of a burning store collapsed while they were inside.

Both men were “nothing less than heroes,” McGuinty told the crowd that packed the local arena for the funeral. When called, the premier said, the men “stepped forward and said ’Here I am, send me.”’

Hundreds of uniformed firefighters and police officers from across Ontario stood at attention as the flag-covered caskets were brought inside Memorial Arena in Listowel, northwest of Kitchener.

McGuinty told the families of the men that they are not alone in their grief.

“Let the memory of Ken and Ray and their courage give you the courage to carry on. And I’m just here to let you know, right now, 13 million Ontarians are carrying you on their shoulders and in their hearts.”

The premier added: “Ken and Ray will live on in the actions of their brave colleagues who work to keep our families safe every day, often at great risk to themselves.”

A friend of Walter’s told the service that he had followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a volunteer firefighter. He described Walter as a man dedicated to his community.

Outside, thousands lined the streets to watch the funeral procession that included a large red fire engine and a pipe and drum band.

Tracey Bowman, whose husband is a firefighter in nearby Milverton, said she wanted to show her support for the two men’s families.

“It leaves a pit in your stomach by far, knowing this could be any one of our husbands or brothers or dads,” she said. “It’s an amazing feeling, seeing the overwhelming support from far and wide,” she added.

The town of about 6,000 people organized a black ribbon campaign honouring the firefighters. Routes into the community were marked with the small flags of remembrance.

There was a minute of silence in the Ontario legislature earlier in the week for the two men and flags were flown at half-mast.

Several investigations are looking into the fire and the deaths of the two volunteers.

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