Fallen Pelham firefighter named to national memorial

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

Spruce McRee, former fire chief of what was then the Pelham Volunteer Fire Department, remembers clearly the day he lost his comrade and good friend 25 years ago.

John E. Lee III, a 39-year-old Pelham volunteer firefighter, was driving with his wife to the Riverchase Galleria on Sept. 30, 1986, when he witnessed a wreck on the opposite side of Interstate 65 near the Cahaba River bridge.

“A volunteer firefighter is never off duty. He saw a wreck on the other side of the road, and he pulled over and was going to run across to help,” McRee said. “But when he jumped over the median, he didn’t realize there was a gap between the two concrete blocks.

“After the wreck was cleared, (Lee’s wife) Sandy was still sitting in their car on the side of the road when the officers told her she could move her car,” McRee added. “She said ‘I can’t leave yet. I’m still waiting on my husband.’ When they looked off the bridge, they saw him laying down there.”

A quarter century after the accident, McRee said he found the perfect way to honor the memory of his fallen friend.

Over the past few years, McRee, who owns the Crosscreek television production company in Alabaster, has been helping to produce the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend held at the National Fire Academy in Maryland.

“After I learned more about the National Firefighters Foundation, I realized it was something we ought to look into for John,” McRee said. “So we gathered all the information on him and sent it in to the Foundation. Sure enough, they responded and said he would absolutely be eligible for the Firefighters Memorial.”

The Foundation will unveil Lee’s name on the national memorial during an Oct. 16 ceremony in Maryland, and McRee and many of Lee’s friends and family members will be in attendance.

Sandy Lee said her husband’s inclusion on the national memorial will serve as a testament to the way he lived his life.

“It was no surprise to anyone that John lost his life trying to help someone else,” Sandy Lee said. “We feel very honored and privileged to have him named to the memorial. It means so much to us for him to be remembered that way.”

In Oct. 2010, 42-year-old Hoover resident Brent Mitchell also died after falling off the same bridge while trying to cross the interstate to help the driver of a burning vehicle. On Oct. 12, the Alabama Department of Transportation placed a sign on the bridge naming it in honor of Lee and Mitchell.

McRee said he still misses his friend and colleague every day, but said he was glad to see Lee’s name forever attached to the bridge and the national memorial.

“I don’t like to see anyone’s name on that (Firefighters Memorial) wall, but it’s a fitting way to honor those who have given their lives in the line of duty,” McRee said. “It’s a perfect closure for what he was all about.”