Hundreds at NFA pay tribute to Benjamin De Mond during emotional memorial service
Norwich - Speakers at his two-hour memorial service Tuesday said Benjamin De Mond loved all of his families - his children, his sister and parents, his in-laws and his brothers at the Norwich Fire Department.
Hundreds of uniformed firefighters and emergency services personnel from dozens of departments across the state - along with family, friends and well-wishers - crowded into the Alumni Gymnasium at Norwich Free Academy for an emotion-filled "Celebration of Life Memorial Service" for De Mond, 33, who was killed in a multivehicle crash Friday night on Interstate 395 in Montville.
De Mond's sons, Cole, 4, and Alex, 6, were in the vehicle Friday night and were seriously injured in the crash. Both are being treated at the Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford, where Alex is in fair condition and Cole remains critical, a spokesman for the center said Tuesday night.
According to a police report, the crash occurred when a vehicle being driven in the southbound lanes by Willis Goodale, 50, of Groton attempted to cross the highway to use the emergency turnaround near the state police Troop E barracks to enter the northbound lanes. De Mond's vehicle struck Goodale's Jeep, went through the turnaround and crashed head-on into a northbound vehicle.
Goodale was arraigned in Norwich Superior Court Monday on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and second-degree assault with a motor vehicle. He is being held on a $750,000 bond.
On Tuesday, De Mond's sister, Christie Streit, fought back tears and talked first about her brother's "two beautiful boys," because he "put his kids before all else."
Streit said Alex underwent 5½ hours of surgery Monday - his second surgery since the crash - as doctors worked to repair his intestines and lacerated liver.
"He has a long road ahead," Streit said to a silent audience.
Cole, whose full name is Nicholas, "is physically recovering," Streit said, and is joking with his nurses and showing off his arm muscles, as his dad often did.
"The really tough part for both Cole and Alex is the emotional part," Streit said, "for them to live the rest of their lives without their father."
Greg Bartley, De Mond's brother-in-law, said after the two-hour service that the boys' mother, De Mond's ex-wife, Melissa Bartley, didn't attend the service in order to stay at the hospital with the children.
"Benjamin is here," she told her brother earlier Tuesday. "We're co-parenting today."
Streit and De Mond's father, Greg De Mond, thanked Norwich firefighters for making all the travel and hotel arrangements to bring the family here from Washington state. They repeatedly referred to the department as Benjamin's other family and related how much he loved being a firefighter.
In turn, Norwich fire officials thanked Dorothy and Greg De Mond for raising such a dedicated and gentlemanly person.
Tuesday's ceremony started in the traditional solemn way, Norwich Fire Chief Kenneth Scandariato said. Firetrucks lined the streets in front of the school. Mourners entered the new Slater Museum atrium along a walkway lined with flags held by members of several local military and emergency services support organizations, including the Patriot Guard Riders, the New London Motorcycle Club and Fire Riders Connecticut.
The New London Firefighters Pipes and Drum band played tributes.
Scandariato then invited speakers and audience members to let go of the solemn protocol to celebrate De Mond's life.
Scandariato started with his own stories about the first firefighter he hired as Norwich chief. He called De Mond the model for all 16 future hires, a firefighter dedicated to learning and ever improving at his trade, practicing politeness and respect at all times and, of course, devoting himself to his family.
But it wasn't always smooth, Scandariato said. During a time of personal crisis, De Mond was arriving late for his shifts, missed some shifts and worked other extra shifts not assigned to him. Scandariato called him in to talk about what was wrong.
"I think I need a new calendar, sir," he told the chief.
De Mond was a powerful physical specimen, excelling in baseball, hockey and physical fitness within the Norwich Fire Department. Family and co-workers said he jogged "thousands of miles" along city streets, pushing his two young sons in what he called an "all-terrain" stroller. He wore out the tire treads, wrapping them in Duct tape to keep them going.
Several fellow Norwich firefighters took the podium to tell personal stories about De Mond, from his passion for running up and down fire station stairs when training to his karaoke singing and his bragging about rescuing a tattered "Norwich Fire Department" baseball cap from the trash.
Firefighter Dave Rose recalled a day when De Mond agreed to cover a shift for him, but then had to call in sick. Rose ended up having to work. Within two hours, De Mond sent him an Edible Arrangement of fruit with a card: "Sorry, Ben."
Firefighter Derek Ouillette said De Mond could be forgetful at times, leaving his well-worn running shoes at home, for example. De Mond would borrow Ouillette's sneakers, always leaving dryer sheets inside to combat the foot odor.
De Mond's running through the city became his trademark, but Norwich police Officer John Perry said De Mond's mind was always on duty. Perry once responded to a contentious domestic-violence situation as De Mond happened to be running by. He stopped in, Perry said, and asked, "Everything OK, Perry?" before continuing on his way.
Perry said he, too, has two young sons. With De Mond's death, the Perry family has instituted a new family tradition called "big hugs, big kisses" every night. He urged other families in the audience to do the same.
Perry then turned to the many fellow police officers in the Alumni Gym.
"Help me get people who are drinking and driving off the road," he said.