When the nearly 500 runners taking part in the 24th Giant Main Line Run/Walk toe the starting line on Sept. 12, some will be trying for personal bests. Others will be looking forward to a leisurely 5K jaunt with friends. All should be thinking about Sean DeMuynck.
On July 4, the Penn Wynne-Overbrook Hills firefighter died while working to extinguish a house fire. DeMuynck had come to the area from Canada with his wife, Melissa Richard-Greenblatt, two years earlier. He’d answered the call that night while the couple was packing up the house they’d rented. They were looking forward to returning to Ontario in the next week or so.
The run, which is staged on Lancaster Avenue in Wayne, raises money to provide scholarships for firefighters and other emergency personnel throughout the Main Line. This year, it will also pay tribute to the 35-year-old DeMuynck. “Sean was a fantastic person,” says Ted Schmid, chief at Penn Wynne-Overbrook Hills Fire Company. “He was either the quiet presence in the room or the one snapping pictures, making fun of people and laughing it up. He could do that in good fun and good humor. Sean was an exceptionally hard worker and put a lot into firefighting. He pushed himself to be a better person, and he pushed others, too.”
DeMuynck and his wife arrived here in July 2019, four months after they were married. Melissa, a microbiologist, received a two-year fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and the couple settled in Overbrook. DeMuynck had been working as the manager of an automobile-recycling plant. Upon arriving here, he began pursuing of his dream of becoming a firefighter.
Schmid recalls that DeMuynck created study guides for himself, which he shared with colleagues. (They’re now in the Penn Wynne-Overbrook Hills firehouse as a reference for future trainees.) DeMuynck had planned to return home to volunteer as a firefighter, hoping to return to the area someday with Melissa to continue his work with Penn Wynne-Overbrook Hills. Once a member of the company, DeMuynck responded to just about every call that went out. “He was dependable,” Schmid says.
On July 4, the call was for a three-story home on Rosedale Road, less than a mile from City Line Avenue. The fire was intense, and those fighting it initially couldn’t find its source within the house. Teams can usually last about 15–20 minutes at a time in a burning building. Part of a later crew to cycle into the structure, DeMuynck headed to the top floor. From that point on, it’s been difficult to recreate the details of the incident. An investigation has been launched to determine exactly why he died.
DeMuynck was the second firefighter the company has lost in the line of duty. The other was Harold Beck, who perished in the 1988 nine-alarm Kiddie City fire in Ardmore. “Firefighting is dangerous, and occasionally there is an injury—but it’s usually nothing serious,” Schmid says. “This is a little different. This was not a 60-something man. This was a strong, energetic, vibrant man who had so much ahead of him.”
DeMuynck’s wife has returned to Canada. In late July, she was part of another remembrance, this time at the hockey rink in Strathroy, Ontario, where DeMuynck, a fine Canadian juniors prospect, played. Back at the Penn Wynne-Overbrook Hills station, no one will use DeMuynck’s locker again. A picture of him hangs inside it, along with American and Canadian flags. “It’s our worst nightmare come true,” Schmid says.
On a chilly Thursday in December 2006, 25-year-old Tom Hays returned to his apartment after helping to extinguish an electrical fire. The seven-year member of Ardmore’s Merion Fire Company told his two roommates he was feeling ill and went to bed. He never woke up.
Each year, the organizers of the Giant Main Line Run/Walk and its participants honor Hays, who died that night of a heart attack. In June, at the Lower Merion Township building, three $5,000 scholarships were awarded in his name to local emergency personnel who can use them for education at two- and four-year colleges or trade schools.
Like DeMuynck’s tragedy, Hays’ death was mourned deeply by those who serve the community. “Sean was an impressive guy, and we have a lot of impressive people in the emergency field,” says Bernie Dagenais, president and CEO of the Main Line Chamber of Commerce and president of the Main Line Chamber Foundation, which stages the run. “His death is a devastating loss for the community, and the run is a chance to show gratitude to the people who serve. They’re the ones who run into the house when people are running out of it.”
At June’s Hometown Heroes ceremony, the chamber distributed $51,000 in grants, including a $10,000 Community Service Leadership Scholarship to Judy Flanagan of the Merion Fire Company. Over the past decade-plus, the chamber has given out more than $500,000 to worthy recipients, thanks in a large part to a generous array of sponsors.
The Giant Main Line Run also brings awareness to the need for more emergency personnel. Charles McGarvey has been Lower Merion’s fire marshal for 16 years. He notes that the number of volunteers has dropped precipitously since the late 1900s, and the need remains huge.
DeMuynck’s impact on the community was evident in the more than 2,000 people who attended his memorial service and paid tribute to him outside the Lower Merion High School auditorium. “Some came from fire companies in Virginia,” says McGarvey. “Firefighters form a true brotherhood and sisterhood.”
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