SANDWICH – The flags are half-staff outside of the Sandwich Fire Protection District main building with a newer fire engine parked just outside. A constant flow of people came in and out of the department Friday, Aug. 2, to offer condolences for the department’s recently deceased fire chief.
Hinckley resident Sarah Groh, a graduate of the Indian Valley Vocational Center, was one of several current and former students of the program that were monitoring the doors during the visitation. She said that fire engine outside was meant to be a surprise for the fire science students from Sandwich Fire Chief Jason Pruski, who also was a fire sciences teacher for the vocational school.
Groh said she was in shock when she first heard that Pruski had died earlier this week. She said she and other students always thought of Pruski as untouchable and tough, and that Pruski definitely fit the bill as a “salty firefighter,” or a firefighter that has seen it all.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Groh said.
Hundreds of family members, friends and members of other nearby fire departments came through for the visitation of Pruski, who died unexpectedly Monday, July 29, at Northwestern Medicine Valley West Hospital in Sandwich.
Groh said she remembers Pruski as someone who knew what he was doing, was proud of what he did and would do anything to ensure that his students succeeded. Once Groh started to see him for class every day and they both started to warm up to each other, she said, he would always kid around with her and ask why she always looked so crabby.
“Once you get past his whole ‘I’m this big, tough firefighter,’ he liked to joke around with us,” Groh said.
Sandwich resident Ashley Guzman, also a recent IVVC graduate, also was helping with door duty for the visitation. She said she wasn’t in Pruski’s fire sciences program, but she often collaborated with him as part of her emergency medical services curriculum.
Guzman said her first impression of Pruski was that he was serious; but once you got to know him, he would joke around with students and was like a teddy bear. She said the next fire sciences teacher at IVVC is going to have really big shoes to fill.
“It’s just not going to be the same without him,” Guzman said.
Sandwich Deputy Fire Chief Nathan King said he knew Pruski his entire life and that Pruski not only was his colleague, but his best friend. He said he always was coming up the ranks with Pruski within the fire department – right up to Pruski becoming chief and King becoming his right-hand man, King said.
“We would joke back and forth that we talk to each other more than our own wives sometimes,” King said.
King said there was a tremendous loss of knowledge with the loss of Pruski. He said Pruski always had a calm demeanor, wasn’t afraid to get hands-on and always made sure his firefighters were taken care of.
King said he would not disclose the cause of death after discussions with the family.
“If that comes from anyone, it will come from the family,” King said.
Members of Pruski’s family, including wife Kristy Pruski, declined comment after requests from Record Newspapers during the Friday, Aug. 2, visitation.
King said his title still is deputy fire chief, but he has assumed chief duties for the fire department for the time being. He said the interim fire chief will be selected during the fire department’s board of trustees meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8, at the fire station.
Sandwich Mayor Rich Robinson said before the visitation that he knew Pruski since Robinson moving to the city in 1990. He said he always had a professional relationship with Pruski while Pruski was part of the fire department and Robinson part of the sheriff’s office.
With at least three Pruskis being part of the fire department family, Robinson said, you’d always run into them whether it’s an accident, fire or medical scene – and that’s how you’d get to know them. Robinson said he also would run into them at firefighter’s breakfasts, Christmas parties and fireman’s balls back in the day.
“They’re always helping out in one way or another, whether fighting fires, fire responding to an accident or education,” Robinson said.
Robinson said “dedication” and “passionate” are the words that come to mind when thinking about Pruski – anyone would have to be if they were part of a volunteer fire department for as long as Pruski was. He said he wants the public to keep Pruski and his family in their prayers and know that Pruski was very dedicated to the city of Sandwich, specifically to the fire department.
“He was such a young guy, 47 years old,” Robinson said. “That’s unthinkable.”