Researcher finds more details about previously unknown sacrifice on 29th birthday

Philip Riley and his wife came to Wayne County from Ireland in pursuit of a better life.

However, the father of three died on his 29th birthday while fighting a fire in downtown Richmond on Oct. 28, 1860.

Riley’s death had not been included as part of the in-the-line-of-duty deaths mourned each year by Richmond Fire Department, but RFD officials learned about him earlier this year, and have begun honoring him.

The oversight was corrected during RFD’s 52nd memorial service Friday, when a helmet was placed at the traditional Firefighter Memorial Table, a bell was rung in his memory, and his story was told.

Riley’s name also has been etched onto local and state firefighter memorials this year.

Current and retired firefighters and their families joined law enforcement representatives at the city’s Israel “Izzy” David Edelman Fire and Police Training Center for the ceremony.

In addition to remembering those who lost their lives, the program acknowledged the many sacrifices made by first responders and their families throughout their loved one’s career.

The (short) life of Riley

RFD’s records lacked Riley’s name since he wasn’t technically part of their department – he was a pipeman for Hoosier Fire Co. No. 3, according to his tombstone.

During Riley’s tenure, several volunteer squads oversaw fire service in the city until a professional City of Richmond department was formed several years later, affecting recordkeeping.

However, a few months ago, firefighters were researching the death of a much earlier chief, who had a fatal heart attack while working. They wanted to determine if he now should be added to the memorial recognizing in-the-line-of-duty sacrifices.

Although that chief hasn’t been added, the related research led to an article quoting Chief Edgar Miller, who had been counted as the city’s second line-of-duty death in 1931.

Miller was discussing the 1924 death of William Kenney, considered RFD’s first in-the-line-of-duty death, and he mentioned Riley’s prior sacrifice.

Fortunately, a few details about Riley remain. Morrisson-Reeves Library Archivist Sue King found a couple digitized articles mentioning him that were shared Friday with guests.

Riley had a “daring spirit,” according to an 1860 story she found in the “Broad Axe of Freedom” publication.

Riley mounted the roof of the burning building, which housed a meat store and a hatter shop, near what is now known as 600 E. Main St. He directed a steady stream of water upon it until it became too hot.

Riley attempted to jump across a five-foot alley upon the opposite flat roof, but he fell, fracturing his skull. He lived for about one hour after his fall.

Firemen from several companies and “an unusual large concourse of citizens” attended Riley’s funeral.

Because it was “a matter of certainty that the fire was caused by incendiaries, we hope that untiring exertion will be made to ferret out and bring to justice the guilty scoundrels,” the article noted.

A later article noted Riley’s tombstone in a Catholic cemetery near downtown Richmond. However, his remains later were moved after the cemetery fell into disrepair.

While Riley’s final resting place is currently unknown, RFD officials believe he might be in the St. Andrew Cemetery on Test Road. Chief Jerry Purcell said RFD will continue to honor his name and search for his burial site.

Name added to memorials

On Sept. 29, Professional Fire Fighters Union of Indiana honored Riley along with eight other firefighters who died in the line of duty, and his name has been added to the granite Indiana Law Enforcement and Firefighter Memorial in Indianapolis.

Riley’s name also has been etched into the memorial on Richmond’s training grounds at 1740 S. Eighth St. It lists RFD’s other five firefighters whose deaths were ruled as being in the line of duty.

One name – Centerville High School graduate Jeff Gindling – was added after his death in 2019 at age 53 was attributed to health issues obtained earlier at a fire scene.

The others – William Kenney, Edgar Miller, Earl Miller and Lawrence Ghearing – died in 1924, 1931, 1943 and 1948, respectively.

Purcell read a poem by Shawnee Chief Tecumseh that encouraged listeners to “live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart … Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.”

Richmond Mayor Dave Snow and Purcell noted that an average of 100 U.S. firefighters die in the line of duty each year, and last year, 134 American police officers were killed in action.

Purcell noted that those statistics don’t reflect the deaths of first responders lost to suicide, because processing so much pain on a regular basis can take a toll on their mental health. He said that first responders are 20 percent more likely to take their own lives than other Americans.

Additional tributes

Those attending also remembered three retired RFD firefighters who died since the department’s last memorial ceremony – Robert Abner, William Smith and Peter McDaniel.

Smith’s wife, Terri, called the program a nice event.

“It’s an honorable thing – they didn’t always do this,” she said. “It’s very touching and gives you a chance to see the other family members. I’m pleased they do it.”

Father Sengole Gnanaraj of Richmond Catholic Community, who serves as the chief’s chaplain, told the audience it’s important to do something for those who have died as well as those who mourn.

Richmond Dave Snow read a proclamation declaring Friday as Firefighter Memorial Day in the city. Noting RFD’s increased fire prevention and education efforts aiming to reduce the loss of life and property, he encouraged residents to give appreciation and respect to heroic public servants.

The discovery of Riley wasn’t the only new addition to Friday’s annual event. The fire truck bell that was rung in memory for each of the line-of-duty deaths has a new yet historic tie to RFD.

The bell was from RFD’s first motorized fire apparatus – dated 1911 – and was brought back from the Carolinas earlier this year.

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Millicent Martin Emery is a reporter and editor for the Western Wayne News.