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Seward Fire Chief Eddie Athey presents Mike and Susie McHone with a memento of their time with the Seward Fire Department at Monday night’s meeting of the City Council. Photo by Kyle Walker.

Between them, Mike and Susie McHone have responded to thousands of emergencies in the Seward area. Now, as they look forward to a new life in the Lower 48, they look back on three decades of service as volunteer medics and firefighters, a contribution that others say will be difficult to match.

Over the same period, Mike has been an employee of the city’s Public Works Department. With his retirement this coming Friday, he and Susie will be packing their things and moving back to the childhood farm in Wisconsin where Mike grew up.

Both Mike and Susie look at their time in the emergency services like a second career – an attitude that Fire Chief Eddie Athey and former fire chief Mayor David Squires both noticed.

“I don’t even know that I could put my finger on the best quality of those two,” Athey said. “But at the top of the list is their dedication. One of the things that has been a constant for us at the department is that when we have an event after hours or on weekends, if they’re not out of town or otherwise committed, we could count on them to be there.”

Squires was fire chief at the time the McHones joined the Seward Fire Department, and he said the same thing.

“As volunteers, they were always willing to do something for the organization and the community,” Squires said. “They were interested in promoting good will and making sure the job was done. They were people that you could always count on.”

What Squires and Athey lauded as uncommon dedication, the McHones both explained away as just part of the gig – in almost exactly the same terms.

“You’ve got to be willing to get up in the middle of the night,” Mike said of working as a volunteer firefighter. “You almost have to look at it like a career. If you’re going to do it, you have to do it, not just when it’s convenient.”

“If you’re going to do something, you need to give it 100 percent,” Susie said. “That’s my thought process. If you’re only going to halfway do something, don’t bother.”

That willingness to be available any time has shown itself in the sheer volume of calls to which the McHone’s have responded. Electronic records going back to 2003 show that the couple has responded to over 1,500 calls, Athey said. That period covers only half of the McHone’s involvement in the emergency services. 

Joined fire department together

The husband-and-wife pair got their start in local emergency services around the same time. They moved in the same circles in the time after Mike relocated to Seward in the mid 1980s. 

Susie had grown up in Moose Pass and joined the Seward Volunteer Ambulance Corps in 1989, she said. Mike first joined the Bear Creek Volunteer Fire Department, then the ambulance corps. They were married in 2000 after a decade-long acquaintance, Susie said. 

While at the ambulance corps, they worked alongside Jean Cripps, who still remembers them for their reliability and compassion.

“You could depend on them,” Cripps said. “I particularly enjoyed having both of them. I just like people who care about other people and they showed that, they showed their concern and their empathy for other people. I knew when they were on with me that I could depend on them.”

Mike spent a decade and a half at the Bear Creek department before his acquaintances at the city persuaded him to join the Seward Fire Department in 2000. Susie joined him, and the two have been a fixture of the Seward department ever since.

Having a spouse on the same calls was a great help to Susie, she said, since the two of them could support one another when, as will happen in some emergencies, the call ends badly, with someone dead or critically injured.

“If it was really a cruddy run, he and I could sit down at home by ourselves and hash this thing out between us so we could put it away,” Susie said. “That was the best part of he and I being a team.”

“There is nothing else like it in the whole world,” Mike said of the fire department. “The brotherhood, the sisterhood – people in the department here would do anything to help one another out. I daresay there’s no organization in the whole world that would match that.”

Buried in an avalanche

The whole time that the McHones have been giving up their time to fight fires and respond to medical emergencies, they have had day jobs. Susie worked for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation managing Glacier View Apartments. Mike worked various positions in the city’s Public Works Department, eventually becoming streets foreman. 

Mike was a pillar of the department, said Public Works Director Doug Schoessler. When heavy rains pushed mountains of gravel down the Lowell Canyon Diversion Tunnel, Mike was the one who climbed into a loader and cleared the outfall.

He was once buried in an avalanche while driving a loader along Lowell Point Road. Thankfully, the avalanche was relatively small. After 45 seconds of slow accumulation, the snow stopped, and Mike evaluated his options. He decided that his chances were good he could dig himself out on the side away from the fall.

“I pulled the window down on the loader, and I started pulling snow into the cab with me,” he said. “Pretty soon, I seen daylight.” 

Will be missed

The McHones departure will leave the Seward Fire Department without some of its longest-standing and most experienced members.

“Between the two of them, they have well over 60 years of emergency services delivery in Seward, and that is to be commended,” Athey said. “Honestly when are we ever going to see that again?”

Squires, who still volunteers with the department, echoed that sentiment.

“I think that the organizations are going to miss them, because they’re family,” Squires said. “Me personally, I’m going to miss them, because they are family. We’ve been through a lot of stuff, good and bad.”

“With their leaving, it’s going to be a big hole to fill.”