Retired Akron firefighter Tom Labbe has been by his little brother’s side since that fateful night in 1965.
Labbe was on duty that Nov. 19 day when his brother, Larry, also an Akron firefighter, went inside an East Market Street apartment to rescue a woman who didn’t want to leave the burning building.
Larry Labbe, a 30-year-old married father of two with a baby on the way, died inside that building along with fellow firefighter John Nist.
Tom Labbe lost his best friend that night.
And most every year since the department began recognizing firefighters who died in the line of duty, Tom Labbe has been there.
Thursday was no exception as Labbe, 78, sat in the front row listening as local leaders and firefighters paused to remember his brother and the 12 others who have given the ultimate sacrifice. The annual Akron Fire Fighters Memorial Day Service was held outside Fire Station No. 4 on Thornton Street.
“We were brothers, but we were more like best friends, too,” Tom Labbe said prior to the service. “He’s always on my mind; I think about him all the time.”
The Labbe boys were separated in age by only one year. Born and raised in Akron, they paired up in life as they matriculated from Findley Elementary to Jennings Middle School through North High.
They played pranks and ball together. They were a team. Only the fire separated them.
Larry Labbe and John Nist went inside that building, which housed retail stores on the lower level and apartments above, not knowing the woman inside was already dead. They also went inside without any breathing apparatus.
News accounts say Akron firefighters ran into the flames and pulled 15 people out that night.
Tom Labbe, then 31, was there working when other firefighters came up and said his little brother was missing inside the building. Although firefighters saved several people that night, no one could save the two firefighters or the woman they were intent on rescuing.
Larry Labbe and Nist were overcome by smoke after a roof collapsed.
Later, it was Tom Labbe’s job to break the news to his family.
“That was the hardest thing — telling my parents he was gone,” he said.
Tom Labbe continued on in the department until retiring in 1989. His brother and Nist are buried in Holy Cross Cemetery. Larry Labbe’s wife, Marilyn, eventually remarried and raised the three children in South Carolina.
Thursday’s service included remarks from Fire Chief Robert Ross and Mayor Don Plusquellic, who recalled the death of Akron’s last fallen firefighter, James Wise, the father of a close friend, who died of a heart attack in 1969 while working a fire.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, and a spokesman for Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Copley Township, along with Firefighter Russ Brode, vice president of Akron Local #330, also addressed the crowd. The Rev. Bob Denton provided prayers.
Although dozens of firefighters die every year across the nation, none has died in Akron since 1969. Ross noted that fact during his speech to about 100 onlookers who attended the service. He said the department is fortunate.
Ross also noted the importance of paying tribute to the fallen firefighters.
“We come together to demonstrate that we have not, and will not, ever forget these individuals,” he said.
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or email@example.com.