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Ubiñas: Fire museum mourns city's first fallen female firefighter

Fireman’s Hall Museum remembers first fallen female firefighter.

The Fireman's Hall Museum, with bunting to mourn the death of Joyce
Craig-Lewis, the city's first female firefighter killed on the job. Helen
The Fireman's Hall Museum, with bunting to mourn the death of Joyce Craig-Lewis, the city's first female firefighter killed on the job. Helen Ubinas / DAILY NEWS STAFFRead more

ALBERTO GONZALEZ knew what he'd be doing first thing yesterday morning when he heard the news.

"Did you hear that?" his wife asked. "I think they said a firefighter died."

Gonzalez sat up in bed and focused on the newscast.

Joyce Craig-Lewis, an 11-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department and mother of two, died early yesterday morning after being trapped in the basement of a burning West Oak Lane rowhouse. She was the city's first female firefighter killed in the line of duty.

Gonzalez, a firefighter for 24 years and curator of the Fireman's Hall Museum, on 2nd Street near Quarry, knew that distinction would grab national attention. But that wasn't what he and fellow firefighter and curator-in-training Dan Crawford focused on as they solemnly dug the black bunting out of the museum's storage.

"A firefighter is a firefighter," Crawford said.

Craig-Lewis, whom Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer described as a "firefighter's firefighter," was simply one of their own. A sister who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

And now it was their obligation to make sure that her name, and sacrifice, was not forgotten. Gonzalez and Crawford started with the black mourning bunting they draped outside the museum in a light, steady rain.

"It's never a good day when this goes up," Crawford said as he inspected their work. "But it's our duty to remember."

The Fireman's Hall Museum, in a renovated 1902 firehouse, stands as a bastion of remembrance. It highlights a series of firsts, from the original fire engines to the old alarm system to the first black firefighter killed on duty: Stephen Presco, who died on March 7, 1907.

His name is etched into a granite memorial board on the museum's second floor, as are hundreds of other fallen firefighters'.

"When you hear about it, you think we've all done the same thing [Craig-Lewis] was doing last night. We all fought cellar fires, and you think, 'Wow, why her?" Gonzalez said.

Sometimes relatives of the fallen firefighters come into the museum, said Gonzalez and Crawford; children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren looking for information about their relatives. It's one of the many reasons the men are so committed to their roles as the keepers of the department's history.

One day, Craig-Lewis' two children, Mekhi, 16, and Laylani, 16 months, may walk through the museum's doors. Maybe they'll want to learn more about the job that their mother gave her life for. Or maybe, like others before them, they will just want to run their fingers over their loved one's name on the memorial board.

Craig-Lewis' name will be the 352nd name carved into the stone under the stained-glass window depicting a firefighter saving a small child. Underneath that window is this quote:

"The Coward Dies A Thousand Deaths, The Valiant Die But One."

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel